Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui spoke to Correspondents about the worsening security threat in neighboring Libya, the growth of ISIL, and Tunisia’s diplomatic role, among other topics, ahead of a meeting of  Libya’s neighbors being held in Tunisia  from March 21 – 22.

Minister Jhinaoui, Tunisia does not officially support military intervention in Libya considering the ramifications of such an intervention on Tunisia. Today however, this position has shifted since your meeting with the EU ambassadors?

Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui spoke to Correspondents about the worsening security threat in neighboring Libya, the growth of ISIL, and Tunisia’s diplomatic role, among other topics, ahead of a meeting of  Libya’s neighbors being held in Tunisia  from March 21 – 22.

Minister Jhinaoui, Tunisia does not officially support military intervention in Libya considering the ramifications of such an intervention on Tunisia. Today however, this position has shifted since your meeting with the EU ambassadors?

Let us be frank and agree that eliminating terrorism is in everyone’s interest. Eliminating terrorism would benefit us: Libya, the European Union, and everyone in the region.
We basically support defeating terrorism by the Libyans themselves, and if an external intervention is needed, it must take place in accordance with international law. This intervention must be sanctioned by the Security Council, through a clear legal procedure. According to article 51 of international law, in self-defense, the legitimate Libyan government has the right to plead the intervention of international parties.

However, this is a Libyan concern in which we have no right to intervene, but we refuse any illegal and random military intervention. We are a peaceful country and we do not side with military interventions, for every military intervention has its negative consequence. We have seen what happened in Iraq and Syria; military intervention did not bring about stability in these countries.

In case this intervention happens, will Tunisia be aided in protecting its borders?

Defending Tunisia will be done by Tunisians –  it is the task of our army and security forces. However, we made clear to the international parties the ramifications of any military intervention not only on the security level but also on the humanitarian one. An influx of refugees would create new, large problems for Tunisia, the only country that has maintained open borders with Libya.

We have the right ask the international community to take responsibility in facing danger be it terrorism or an influx of refugees. We are in constant contact with these countries through our embassies, and we are also contacting international organizations relevant to the humanitarian issues.

What about having foreign troops on Tunisian soil to prepare for intervention against ISIL in Libya?

No, no foreign troops will deploy in Tunisia, and no one even proposed such a deployment.

Would Tunisia provide logistical support for an intervention?

No one asked us for such support and we will discuss the issue if it is raised.
If the intervention happened with an international decision, then, as a member of the United Nations, we would study the issue putting the Tunisian interest above any other consideration.

Tens of thousands of Tunisians reside in Libya in an environment so dangerous that Tunisians were expelled from certain Libyan cities. This happened, and your ministry did not call on Tunisians to leave Libya or abstain from travelling to Libya?

As part of a preparation for any development in Libya, we formed a crisis cell in the General Administration of Consular Affairs. This cell has a green phone number that will be announced and given to every Tunisian in Libya, and we formed a special office to take calls. If the situation grows more dangerous, we will call on them to leave Libya.
We are closely observing the situation, and we will take action accordingly. Meanwhile, we have formed a consular group ready to move to Ras Ajdir to follow up with our citizens in Libya. However, if a better scenario took place, and the governmental crisis was resolved in Libya, we would be the first country to reopen its embassy there to resume our diplomatic relationships.  

 What are the preparations for the upcoming meeting by Libya’s neighboring counties?

This meeting is set for the 21 – 22 of March 2016, and will be attended by the foreign ministers of Egypt, Sudan, Chat, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. However, if the Libyans could not reach an agreement on the reconciliation government, Libya will be represented in the meeting by the internationally recognized Libyan government of Tobruk.  

 Does this meeting aim at developing a unified position towards the foreign military intervention in Libya?

The aim of the meeting will be set according to the development in Libya. If our Libyan brothers manage to confirm the government, the meeting will discuss the ways in which we can support the new government and help it fulfill its tasks of reconstruction and fighting terrorism. However, if the Libyans could not reach this agreement, we will try to find ways to encourage and enable them to reach it. If  this governmental crisis persists, terrorism in Libya will continue to rise the speculation of partition might become a reality.
The only solution to this problem is for Libyans to agree on a government that runs the country from Tripoli. We agree on this position with both Algeria and Morocco, and we seek to widen this circle of agreement to include the neighboring countries that we believe are keen on the unity of Libya.

Will military intervention in Libya take place soon?

The target of the intervention is the terrorist organization ISIL and not Libya— Libya itself is not being targeted. It is in the interest of the Libyan people and the neighboring countries to eliminate pockets of terrorism that have spread in Libya.
However, some international parties have interests in Libya’s strategic geographical location. The European countries view the development of terrorist organizations in Libya as a danger threatening the security of the Mediterranean.

How do you comment on the alliance with the United States of America?

This alliance was talked about during the president’s last visit to the United States, where the Americans named Tunisia as a strategic ally outside of NATO. This alliance is unilateral and comes in the context of the good relationships between the two countries and will have consequences on several levels. However, it has absolutely no connection to NATO.

After the attack on the US embassy, you compensated it for the damage with a piece of land. Why did you agree on this form of compensation instead of a monetary one?

As far as international relationships go, we responded within a legal framework. Tunisian citizens assaulted the embassy of a friendly state that we are legally obliged to protect, according to international law. However, we failed in this task, the assault took place and the property of a guest embassy was burned. Therefore, we had to provide compensation.

Still, this does not justify a land compensation?

Let us look at the facts of the event. The damage caused by the attack was estimated at 36 million dollars, while the piece of land we gave is worth 12 million dollars. The Tunisian government is obliged by law to compensate for the damage that befell both the embassy and the school. Since the US government is aware of our economic situation, they suggested this form of compensation and we welcomed their suggestion. Moreover, giving land to the embassies of other countries is a common international procedure.

How could you agree on land compensation?

We could have agreed on a 36-million dollar compensation.

Is it not better to give money than land?

It is, if the budget allows for it. You can ask this question to the Minister of Finance and see if it was better to pay 36 million dollars. I still do not understand the unrealistic controversy.
An assault on the US embassy did take place, and the consequences of such an event could have been dire on Tunisia was it not for the good relationships with the United States. The compensation was inevitable, and we could either compensate with land or money, and the government decided to compensate with land.

Tunisian foreign policy has lately shifted towards siding with the “Saudi axis,” how do you comment on the subject?

Perhaps the diplomacy of President Beji Caid Essebsi was most characterized by neutrality. We oppose the binary and ideological policies that were adapted before the elections. However, joining the alliance was a response to a call by the Islamic Convention, since the alliance is Islamic rather than Saudi. Saudi Arabia –where the Islamic Convention is based- did actually call for it, but it is an Islamic alliance to combat terrorism and extremism.

Is there an intention to restore momentum in foreign policy and shift back to neutrality and away from alliances?

Unfortunately, in the first years after the revolution, we suffered some confusions and deviated a little from the wise policies for which Tunisia was famous. For years, Tunisia was consulted by various parties on various issues, and it had significant weight on the regional, Arab and international levels. The changes that took place lately did not come from a vacuum; rather they resulted from internal situations.
Perhaps, I should stress here that Tunisian diplomacy is active and it seeks dialogue with parties with whom we have different opinions in order to reach common ground. Hence, our diplomacy is directed at improving relationships not only with friends but also other countries.

The Tunisian state entrenched itself in an alliance in 2014. Tunisia provided support for the Syrian opposition and called for the removal of the Syrian regime. Today, the relationships between the two countries are cold, how do you comment on the subject?

This is not accurate, there is no official policy to support the armed conflict, although there might be networks in Tunisia that support the fighters in Syria.

Then, how do you comment on the Tunisian calls on Assad to leave his position, holding the Friends of Syria Group conference and positions of the former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki?

President Marzouki had his own views as a human rights activist, however, we should not conflate state positions with personal opinions. We respect Marzouki for he was the President of Tunisia. That being said, we now have an elected government that is closely observing the Syrian case and affairs of Tunisian citizens there. In the end, we will form our positions on the Syrian case in light of the developments in that country.

In the case of the usurped funds by the deposed president Ben Ali and his family, there is sharp criticism on Tunisian diplomacy. Some say that the Tunisian government took steps that drove Switzerland, for example, to hesitate in turning back the assets of the deposed regime officials to the Tunisian state. How do you comment on the subject?

The Foreign Ministry is only a part of the funds retrieving regime, and it cannot take responsibility for the entire case. The National Committee for Retrieving Usurped Funds is actually headed by the Tunisian Central Bank.
The Foreign Ministry took an important role in the negotiations with Canada to sell real estate owned by Ali Malek Hassan Al-Trabulsi, the son-in-law of the deposed president. In this case, the Ministry of State Property have contacted the Canadian government and hired lawyers there and we began the process.

In a similar process, we did sign an understanding with the Swiss parties to this effect and we are confident that they are as keen as we are to conclude this matter. However, there are legal procedures that must be conducted by the Tunisian justice system to convince foreign parties that these funds were illegally obtained. These legal matters are highly complicated, since we are dealing with an honest and independent legal system in European countries. Moreover, our own experience with the matter is still modest; however, we have a group of justices who began specializing in the field and we hope to make significant progress.