Press Availability with Tunisian Foreign Minister Taieb Baccouche

Press Availability
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Tunis, Tunisia
November 13, 2015


FOREIGN MINISTER BACCOUCHE: (Via interpreter) (Inaudible) of the Strategic Dialogue, as it provides support to the partnership. And as (inaudible) if we take into the account the challenges (inaudible) security (inaudible) economically and socially (inaudible) a strong relationship between the security situation and the economic situation, any terrorist attacks will simply have an impact on the economic situation and social situation of the country. Tunisia has taken a number of measures and has established a comprehensive security system to fight terrorism, and Tunisia has completed drafting a strategy to fight violence and terrorism. And this is a strategy which will be submitted to the cabinet soon and will also be submitted to the supreme security council. It is based on four pillars, and a number of workshops have been launched in order to think about how it could be implemented on the ground.

We have started with the first pillar for this system, which is prevention and preventive action against terrorism. A second workshop will be organized on how to deal with the process of returning from the conflict areas in Syria and also in Iraq and in Libya and other parts of the world. I’m talking here about Tunisian citizens. We have also talked about the different forms and perspectives for cooperation between the United States of America and Tunisia concerning these different levels – the security level, the military level, the economic level, also concerning the achievement of development and academic and technological and scientific cooperation. We have signed a document, which is like a memorandum of understanding, concerning the American guarantees for the Tunisian loans so that these loans be simply appropriate to the Tunisian endeavors in the field of development.

We are looking forward in Tunisia to having a simple program by Tunisia for the next five years, so that the Tunisian reform agenda could be implemented in a credible way but also in a timely manner, with the folks of the least developed areas, mainly the inland areas and the border areas which we should focus on in particular. To that end, Tunisia simply wishes to take advantage of the MCC program, which is a Millennium program, the Challenges of the Millennium program. We are really happy and satisfied with the development of the U.S.-Tunisian relationships in the various fields, and we look forward to enhancing further these relationships.

We have also talked about the regional situation, and we agree on the necessity to have a peaceful political solution in Libya, because Libya, for Tunisia, is a source of concern because terrorism is starting to be firmly established in that country and a lot of Tunisians are sent to areas of conflict; their return to the country could put the security of the country at risk. And we really need to cooperate on this level in order to control the borders. The support of the U.S. would be welcome in order to be able to ensure more safe borders, particularly the southern borders, and to prevent terrorists and arms from being smuggled into the country. This is a multilevel endeavor, and the specialists in the security and defense areas will simply see how we can implement this on the ground. This is basically about getting to the details of the main issues and topics that we have dealt with, and we are really very hopeful and optimistic about the strategic cooperation between Tunisia and the United States of America.

I would like to welcome again His Excellence Mr. John Kerry, and I give him the floor now.

SECRETARY KERRY: (In French, via interpretation.) Thank you (inaudible) welcoming me back to Tunisia, and I would like to thank you for your warm welcome.

Mr. Foreign Minister, thank you. I am very delighted to be back in Tunis, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to reaffirm the historic friendship between the United States and Tunisia, and frankly, to also reaffirm the growing strategic partnership between Tunisia and the United States. I’m also glad to be here to welcome our own ambassador, Daniel Rubenstein, who is newly arrived three weeks ago, and I’m very confident is going to be a terrific steward of the U.S.-Tunisia partnership.

In addition to what the foreign minister told you about our meetings this morning and the importance of the Strategic Dialogue, I also had a chance earlier to meet with the National Dialogue Quartet, which very deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize this year. That is recognition that every Tunisian can be very proud of because it reflects a commitment by all the people of Tunisia who came together to support the political leadership in the country’s commitment to democratic principles that literally could not be sustained without broad public support. Later today, I look forward to meeting with President Essebsi and confirming the commitment of the United States to this ongoing transition to democracy.

In every one of the meetings that I had this morning, and particularly in the Strategic Dialogue, my message is the same: The eyes of the world are on Tunisia, and America wants Tunisia to succeed.

Tunisia is where the Arab Spring was born and it where – it is where it distinctly continues to bloom in ways that are defining the possibilities for other countries in the region. Tunisia’s democracy obviously remains a work in progress, as it does in every democracy, including my own. But despite great hardships and two tragic, despicable terrorist attacks, Tunisia has turned time and again to peaceful dialogue, to consensus building, to compromise. Your nation, Mr. Foreign Minister, remains a shining example to those who claim that democracy is not possible in this part of the world. And by including everyone throughout the political process, across the spectrum – religious, secular – Tunisia has now built a powerful front against the extremists who oppose freedom, oppose democracy, oppose everything that the good people of this country are striving to build.

The United States will continue to support the Tunisian people as they chart their way forward. And to help Tunisia move forward on its economic, democratic, and security objectives, the United States has already provided more than 700 million in foreign assistance to Tunisia since 2011, and that has come in the form of direct assistance to democracy building; it has come in the form of assistance for elections and for direct civil society; and it has come in the form of security assistance.

The United States remains deeply invested in strengthening Tunisia’s economy in order to both ensure prosperity for the people of Tunisia, but also to help address the root causes of radicalization. Today, we launched the Joint Economic Commission, which will soon stand alongside the Strategic Dialogue as a key driver of the private sector, and we held government discussions, and also to support the government discussions on the future of the bilateral relationship.

Let me point something fundamental out, and I mentioned this in our meetings this morning: For investment to take place, investors need to have confidence in the democracy, confidence in the law, confidence in the bankruptcy laws, confidence in the investment laws. They need to understand that there is the possibility of earning that return on investment. And that is why our cooperation on security is so critical. Because to build the future that the people of Tunisia want, they need the jobs, they need the opportunities, and those opportunities come hand-in-hand – security, investment, democracy, the civil society. All of these are what help to build the confidence that the global community wants to see.

Advancing Tunisia’s democracy will depend on its ability to continue to build an open and transparent economy – an economy where corruption is not tolerated, where Tunisians trust that their hard work and talent will pay off, and where foreign investors will be able to trust that their investments are secure.

We strongly support the Government of Tunisia’s ambitious economic reform agenda towards these ends. The government is already moving in that direction. The government has identified specific reform efforts which they have forwarded now to the parliament in an effort to move forward. So we are prepared to do more to help Tunisia achieve its goals, and that’s why, earlier today, Foreign Minister Baccouche and I signed a Declaration of Intent signifying our readiness – immediately – to pursue the specific terms and conditions of our third loan guarantee.

Obviously, to preserve and protect Tunisia’s emerging democracy and growing prosperity, enhancing the security cooperation, as I just mentioned, is going to be essential.

During President Essebsi’s visit to Washington last May, President Obama announced his intent to designate Tunisia a Major Non-NATO Ally. We will continue to stand with Tunisia in addressing shared challenges facing us in Libya, as well as the threats posed by terrorist groups like Daesh, al-Qaida, al-Qaida in the Maghreb, Ansar al-Sharia. We welcome Tunisia’s decision to join the Global Counter-ISIL Coalition in September, and we are very pleased that Tunisia has already contributed in a meaningful way to some of our key working groups.

Yesterday, I delivered a speech in Washington about our strategy in Syria, a large component of which is the fight against Daesh. And today, I note that coalition forces conducted an airstrike targeting Mohamed Emwazi – a British citizen also known as “Jihadi John.” Videos released by Daesh showed Emwazi participating in horrific murders of American journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, American aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig, British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, and Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, and a number of other hostages.

We are still assessing the results of this strike. But the terrorists associated with Daesh need to know this: Your days are numbered, and you will be defeated. There is no future, no path forward for Daesh which does not lead ultimately to its elimination, to its destruction. And increasingly, we are becoming more clear and coordinated in that strategy.

Ultimately, over the long term, the destruction will come and be sustained by people like those in Tunisia who have chosen the road forward through democratic process, through good governance, through transparency, through accountability, through democratic principles embodied in governments like that of Tunisia.

And that is why the other major component of our strategy is the pursuit of a lasting and genuine political transition to a government in Syria that, like Tunisia’s, is pluralistic, inclusive, and responsive to the needs of all of the Syrian people.

So I will leave Tunis this afternoon to go to Vienna, where the international community will gather again to continue building the framework for that political transition along the lines that we have seen here. Tunisia is a great model. And in the face of attacks aimed at hurting Tunisia economically, at instilling fear or sowing division among the Tunisian people, it’s important to note that Tunisians have not for a moment abandoned the values upon which their revolution was based. Instead, the people of Tunisia have shown extraordinary determination, courage, grit, and unity. And today, we also discussed the critical role that civil society has played in this enormous transformation, and civil society must continue to play that role in helping to chart the path forward for Tunisia’s consolidation process.

So we, in a short period of time, we actually covered a lot of ground. There is no question that together we have a lot of work ahead of us. But on behalf of President Obama and the American people, I assure you the United States is committed to standing with the Tunisian people, to deepening the growing partnership that our nations share, and to continuing to support Tunisia’s democratic journey in the time ahead.

Thank you, and now I would be happy to join my colleague in taking on a few questions.

MODERATOR: (In Arabic.)

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) (Inaudible) from the national television. I have a number of questions. What is new concerning the military support by the U.S. to Tunisia, including the (inaudible)?

Another security-related question: Will the United States of America play a new role in Libya if we take into account the fact that Daesh has taken more ground and they are very close to Tunisia?

You have expressed the intent to give Tunisia a guarantee for a loan. When will this take place effectively?

FOREIGN MINISTER BACCOUCHE: (Via interpreter) Concerning your question about the threat by Daesh in Libya, we – is the question to me or to His Excellency? The – Mr. Kerry, the question is for you.

SECRETARY KERRY: So with respect to the question that you asked about the additional assistance – military – and the efforts on security, I believe we have put in already some $250 million directly into security assistance. And our budget has additional assistance in it, and I told the foreign minister that we will be going back to talk with members of Congress about the specific needs in order to make sure that our budget and appropriations will include meeting additional help for the security needs of Tunisia.

Our military personnel will actually be here in a matter of, I think, about two weeks to have further discussions directly with the Government of Tunisia regarding not just helicopters, which has been on the agenda for some period of time, but also intelligence gathering, the issue of how to best manage the possibility – I know it’s been discussed publicly – of intelligence-gathering capacity through unmanned airborne vehicles, and the sovereignty and control over those vehicles, which is very important for Tunisia, and we understand that.

Also, there are additional ways in which we believe we can be supportive. We are already doing things here in a very direct way, and we intend to build on that but listening, obviously, to the Government of Tunisia. We’re not asking Tunisia to do things they don’t want to do. We want to do the things that Tunisia describes to us will help the most. And so we have complete and total respect for the needs for the government to work through its own decision-making process, and we will work closely in order to do that.

I also might point out that we’ve already provided two loan guarantees in 2012 and 2014 totaling about a billion dollars. You asked about this signature today, which we did on a new intent to sign. The answer is very quickly, literally as soon as we are able to work through the details. And since we’ve already done it twice, it really shouldn’t be very complicated and I expect it to happen very, very quickly. We understand the urgency of the economic need for Tunisia.

And finally, on the issue of Libya and the role that we will play, we did talk about Libya, and I mentioned that I talked yesterday with the new UN envoy, Martin Kobler. We agreed to be working extremely closely together with respect to Libya. I have appointed a special envoy who has been working diligently with Bernardino Leon, very, very closely over a long period of time. I’ve talked recently with the foreign minister of Italy, Paolo Gentiloni, about the possibilities that we may indeed have a conference possibly in – sometime in the next months regarding the issue of Libya, because there is an urgency.

ISIL, obviously, has tried to spread its tentacles into Libya. I would say that the current impasse between the house of representatives and the GNC is an impasse in which only one entity gains because of it, and that’s ISIL. So it is absolutely critical for the people who aspire to be leaders in Libya to actually lead, and to lead following the model of Tunisia – to come together and compromise and put together a legitimate government, a legitimate governing entity that will allow the many countries that want to be supportive to be able to work with them in order to be able to deliver the support that they hope to deliver.

Libya is something that we all have an interest in, and particularly the near neighbors. So we’re very aware of the ways in which what is happening in Libya spills over into Tunisia, spills over into Egypt, Algeria; has a profound impact on the stability of the region. So it is imperative that we all focus more intently on Libya, and we fully intend to.

FOREIGN MINISTER BACCOUCHE: (Via interpreter) I would like to add one thing concerning Libya. We have also talked about the peaceful political solution in Syria, because for the security in Tunisia we think that there is a – there are links between what is happening in Libya and what is happening in Syria. We are focused on Libya.

QUESTION: Barbara Plett from the BBC. You were talking about the importance of democracy and reforms. How concerned – this is a question to both of you. How concerned are you that the current turmoil in the government, the fight – infighting in one of the parties – how much is that going to affect the possibility of carrying out those reforms and convincing other international lenders that they can be safe in putting their money into Tunisia?

The second question is about Libya also. Again, you were talking about the importance of changing the scene there, but the latest indications are that the peace process is in trouble, especially with these allegations about a conflict of interest of the previous UN envoy. How concerned are you that this is going to affect the peace process there?

And Mr. Kerry, just another quick question: You mentioned the significance of the targeting of Jihadi John. Could you also talk about the significance of the Sinjar operation?

SECRETARY KERRY: Sorry, I didn’t hear you. What was the --

QUESTION: You mentioned the significance of targeting Jihadi John. Could you also talk about the significance of the Sinjar operation?

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, yes. Go ahead.

FOREIGN MINISTER BACCOUCHE: (Via interpreter) Concerning your question about the impact of what is happening inside parties on the critical situation in the country, we are in a democracy. What is happening inside parties, political parties, is not going to have an impact on the work of the government and on the social and economic situation of the country. It is quite normal to have problems inside parties and between parties, but everyone supports the action of the government and the reform – the reforms which are being carried out prominently. So this is not going to have an impact on the work of the government.

SECRETARY KERRY: Let me just say very quickly that the minister has spoken on the internal issues here. I would simply say that Tunisia is an example of Islamists engaging constructively in the political sphere, and Ennahda’s leaders have participated positively in the mainstream political process since the 2011 revolution, including their decision to turn over power peacefully. So we have high hopes that Tunisia will continue down this path of compromise, reconciliation, and of working together.

With respect to the Sinjar operation, even as we are sitting here today, Iraqi forces, Peshmerga-led forces, are fighting to liberate Sinjar, and there are some entrenched ISIL fighters in Sinjar. But we are absolutely confident that over the next days, Sinjar will be able to be liberated, and it’s a vital location because it sits right on Highway 47, which is the principal transport linkage for resupplying from al-Raqqa to Mosul. So it has serious strategic implications, not to mention the fact that the Yezidis, who have been attacked and murdered, slaughtered, and driven up onto a mountain and who have been living terrible lives over this period of time need the right to be able to return to their home. So we view this as a very legitimate and important strategic goal, and we’ll keep you posted over the next days as this battle unfolds.