The United States on Tuesday dropped the Gambia from a popular free trade agreement in response to a crackdown on LGBT rights and other human rights concerns.
The decision to drop the small West African nation from special trade status under the African Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000 came late Tuesday afternoon, just after media in the Gambia announced that three men would be put on trial for homosexuality. These are the first to face trial since police began arresting people on allegations of homosexuality in November. At least 16 more are known to be in detention, and Gambian human rights activists do not know if they are even still alive.
"The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has been monitoring the human rights situation in The Gambia for the past few years, with deepening concerns about the lack of progress with respect to human rights, rule of law, political pluralism, and the right to due process," said Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House, in an email to BuzzFeed News. "In addition, in October, Gambian President Jammeh signed into law legislation that further restricts the rights of LGBT individuals, including life imprisonment for so-called 'aggravated homosexuality.' Reports have surfaced of arrests, detention, and torture of individuals because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity."
The move comes after Gambian human rights activists were able to secure their first meetings with high-ranking U.S. officials after years of unsuccessfully trying to get the State Department to respond to the abysmal human rights during President Yahya Jammeh's 20 years in power. The meeting coincided with a petition drive launched by the largest American LGBT organization, the Human Rights Campaign, calling on the Obama administration to "take swift action against President Jammeh for his intolerable actions." LGBT rights advocates say their role in opening doors to the Obama administration suggests they have fully arrived as a force in influencing U.S. foreign policy.
"For the first time the gay community really is coming together to get equal consideration in U.S. foreign policy," said Mark Bromley of the Council for Global Equality, which lobbies for LGBT rights in international affairs. Bromley said that only in recent years have LGBT groups been able to exert the kind of influence that certain religious or ethnic communities have exerted to focus the U.S.'s foreign policy when their counterparts in other countries are under threat.
The meeting that Gambian human rights activists held with White House officials earlier this month — which was facilitated in part by the Council for Global Equality — was the first time they say they had met with anyone above the level of a State Department desk officer to discuss Jammeh's human rights record. This was thanks in large part to the "support that this LGBT issue has," said Fatou Camara, a former press secretary for President Jammeh who was charged with sedition and now is an opposition activist living in the United States.
Under the AGOA trade arrangement, the Gambia had been exporting about $37 million in goods to the United States each year duty-free. Expelling the Gambia from the special trade status was the first time that the U.S. had sent the kind of signal that Jammeh will take seriously in response to human rights abuses, Camara said.
"Jammeh [will] know that the US is really not joking not now," Camara said. Until now, "he was really playing with them" and behaving as if there were no consequences for violating human rights protections. Among the dozens who have been killed or disappeared under his rule are two American citizens believed to have been abducted by Jammeh's security forces in 2013.
The U.S. has almost never revoked this trade status from an African nation except when a government was overthrown in a coup, said Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer with the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights who has been assisting Gambian activists lobby the Obama administration. South Sudan, which has been in the midst of a civil war since last December, was also removed from AGOA on Tuesday. But this was a symbolic disapproval of their unwillingness to make progress toward peace, as the U.S. and South Sudan have no significant amount of trade.