At the second Strategic Dialogue today in Tunis, Foreign Minister Taieb Baccouche and Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed the strategic importance of the partnership between Tunisia and the United States. They discussed Tunisia’s bold economic reform agenda and Tunisia’s commitment to protect hard-won freedoms in the face of security threats from violent extremism. The Minister and Secretary endorsed the continuing efforts of civil society leaders to protect and nurture democratic space in Tunisia, building on the work of National Dialogue Quartet, which was recently recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize.
Support for Tunisia’s Democracy
Minister Baccouche and Secretary Kerry expressed their mutual goal of expanding security, economic, and governance partnerships between the United States and Tunisia. The leaders affirmed that promoting transparency and fighting corruption, including through the Open Government Partnership, as well as building trust between the people and security forces, are the best ways to undercut terrorism. The United States recognized Tunisia’s decision to join the Counter-ISIL Coalition and become a pilot country for the Counter Terrorism/Countering Violent Extremism Clearinghouse Mechanism under the auspices of the Global Counterterrorism Forum. The Secretary also acknowledged the importance of Tunisia’s planned 2016 municipal elections for building a stronger, more inclusive democracy and brighter future through decentralization. Both noted that yesterday’s productive civil society event informed the Strategic Dialogue and underscored the unique position of civil society institutions to partner with the government, but also to hold the government accountable to promised reforms. The two leaders emphasized their shared commitment to promoting a secure, integrated, and prosperous region through the warm partnership shared between the peoples of the United States and Tunisia.
Advancing Economic Cooperation and Development
Today, the United States is announcing that it is prepared to initiate steps to negotiate a Loan Guarantee Agreement with the Government of Tunisia to support Tunisia’s political, economic and social resiliency. Tunisia has made notable progress on its economic reform agenda and has demonstrated a continued commitment to address its economic challenges.
The Secretary announced the inaugural U.S.-Tunisia Joint Economic Commission, which will supplement the U.S.-Tunisian Strategic Dialogue, the Joint Military Commission, and the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement as centerpieces of U.S. engagement with Tunisia. With over $1.4 billion in trade in 2014, the United States already enjoys an important economic relationship with Tunisia, and the Joint Economic Commission will facilitate further growth. The two sides discussed ways for the Joint Economic Commission to advance Tunisia’s economic reform agenda, competitiveness, and overall growth through both policy discussion and formulation of assistance programming. They intend to hold the next session of the Joint Economic Commission in Washington in Spring 2016, and the next meeting of the bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) Council in Washington in March 2016.
The United States highlighted the important work of the Tunisian American Enterprise Fund (TAEF), seeded with $60 million in U.S. assistance. TAEF is actively promoting the development of the Tunisian private sector by investing in small and medium enterprises that will contribute to inclusive economic growth and employment. The Minister acknowledged that the U.S.-funded Business Reform and Competitiveness Project created 6,564 sustainable private sector jobs in 100 Tunisian businesses. The project also helped build a network of 21 Career Development Centers, with five more to come online this year.
Strengthening Governance and Partnerships
In concert with President Caid Essebsi’s focus on inclusion and expanding educational opportunities for Tunisian youth, the Secretary announced that the United States has invested over $25 million through 2018 to support opportunities for young Tunisians to study in the United States. The Secretary congratulated Tunisia on the almost 400 Tunisians who have qualified to study at universities and community colleges in the United States through the U.S. government-funded Thomas Jefferson Scholarship Program and the Fulbright Tunisia Tech+ Scholars. He also acknowledged plans to move forward with three new university linkages between Tunisian universities and Columbia, MIT, and Texas A&M in the areas of high technology and agriculture research in addition to twelve University Linkage programs to enhance research and education exchange between Tunisian and American faculty and institutions. The leaders agreed to further cooperate on Science & Technology programs to enable U.S. and Tunisian scientists to discover promising and innovative new technologies.
The Minister and Secretary decided to initiate discussions on potential collaboration between Tunisia and the United States within the framework of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Through this, we aim to deter the illicit excavation and trafficking of Tunisia’s rich and unique cultural heritage.
Security and Counterterrorism Cooperation
The Minister and Secretary emphasized their strong mutual interest in bringing stability to North Africa. The Secretary highlighted President Obama’s designation of Tunisia as a Major Non-NATO Ally and welcomed Tunisia as a member of the Global Counter ISIL Coalition. Secretary Kerry confirmed that the United States will stand with Tunisia as it faces a very serious security threat. The United States views Tunisia as a critical counterterrorism partner in North Africa and beyond and commends its ongoing efforts to counter terrorism. Since 2011, the United States has provided Tunisia more than $250 million in security assistance to counter internal and regional threats. The assistance is building the capacity of Tunisia’s institutions to provide security to all Tunisians in a manner that respects the rights they claimed during the 2011 revolution. The two sides also discussed a Customs Mutual Assistance Agreement which would increase cooperation between our respective Customs administrations to bolster our mutual efforts to stop international crime, and aid in the facilitation of legitimate trade and travel.
Tunisia and the United States have a shared interest in increasing security cooperation to address common threats in Tunisia and across the region. This interest was highlighted by Thursday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Police Academy modernization project, a long-term, multimillion dollar effort to fully renovate the training curriculum and physical plant for the Tunisian National Police and National Guard. In addition, the Secretary informed the Minister the United States is working to secure resources to improve the ability of the Government of Tunisia to deter, detect, and interdict Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and WMD-related materials that might cross the most vulnerable part of Tunisia’s border with Libya.
The Strategic Dialogue concluded with Minister Baccouche and Secretary Kerry’s pledge to build even stronger political, cultural, and economic ties between the United States and Tunisia. They anticipated holding the next U.S.-Tunisian Strategic Dialogue in Washington in 2016. Today’s dialogue highlights the deep partnership and warm friendship enjoyed between Tunisia and the United States, as well as our shared promise to preserve the gains of Tunisia’s historic democratic transition, increase security, and develop the economy.