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US to End Cameroon's Preferential Trade Status

FILE - Cameroon papers on March 15, 2019, said a U.S. diplomat would focus on human rights abuses and other problems during a visit to the country. The U.S. now will be downgrading Cameroon's trade status because of alleged rights violations.

The White House plans to end Cameroon's preferential trade status in 2020 because of alleged human rights violations, a charge the West African nation’s government disputes.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced his decision in a written message to Congress on Thursday, saying Cameroon's government "engages in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights … [including] extrajudicial killings, arbitrary and unlawful detention, and torture."

As of Jan. 1, Cameroon would be removed from the list of countries benefiting from the African Growth and Opportunity Act. The 2000 law aims to stimulate U.S. trade and investment in sub-Saharan Africa and bolster economic growth in the region, primarily by enabling participating countries to market goods to the United States duty-free.

Participants' responsibilities

Cameroon was among 39 countries participating as of last January. Participants must show evidence of working toward a market-based economy, upholding core labor standards, establishing the rule of law and respecting human rights.

Activist groups such as Human Rights Watch have reported "credible accounts of torture and abuse" in Cameroon, where a two-year crisis over Anglophone-speaking regions' push for separation from the predominantly French-speaking country has left at least 2,000 people dead.

In August, for example, HRW said Cameroonian authorities had held more than 100 detainees for weeks in overcrowded conditions, subjected them to torture and delayed trials. Detainees complained of beatings "with wooden clubs and machetes."

FILE - Cameroon President Paul Biya is pictured in Yaounde, Oct. 7, 2018.
FILE - Cameroon President Paul Biya is pictured in Yaounde, Oct. 7, 2018.

Trump blamed rights violations on the administration of Paul Biya, president since 1982.

Cameroon's information minister, Rene Emmanuel, defended the government.

"We think Cameroon is certainly one of the countries in Africa [that] has done a lot in terms of democracy, in terms of promoting liberties," he told VOA in a phone call Thursday from the capital, Yaounde.

But, he added, "Maybe there is a lot of injustice in our country where the respect of human rights is concerned. So I think we will have to look into this decision."

Critical of treatment

Emmanuel said Cameroon's government was being treated unfairly.

"Bad things are committed by separatists and not widely condemned. The humanitarian organization ... behaves as if they don't see anything concerning all the atrocities or forces who are there to take our citizens," he said, suggesting government security forces were "there to preserve the integrity of the country."

Cameroon is the United States' 128th-largest trading partner, with $413 million worth of goods exchanged in 2018, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Last year's top U.S. exports to Cameroon included machinery, steel and iron products, and plastics. The top imports from Cameroon included mineral fuels, wood products and cocoa.

Gabrielle Hernandez, a VOA Africa Division intern, contributed to this report.