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Diplomacy in Action

Press Availability With President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf


Press Availability
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Treaty Room
Washington, DC
February 27, 2015

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SECRETARY KERRY: Good morning, everybody. I am extremely pleased to welcome Her Excellency, Dr. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, here to America and to the Department of State. President Sirleaf is a very distinguished world leader, the deserving recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, and the first woman elected head of state in Africa. And Madam President, we’re really delighted to have you here now at a moment of great importance to your country’s history. It obviously is a bittersweet combination of great accomplishment with great tragedy. And we are particularly proud of the close relationship between our nations.

I have valued the chance to talk with you this morning about where we are with respect to the Ebola crisis and also the future development challenges of your country, which are critical to recovering from the Ebola crisis, ensuring that the epidemic, obviously, is brought to a complete close. We are not there yet. We still have a challenge, even though enormous progress has been made. And we want to review the other issues that are on our bilateral agenda and we will shortly be meeting with President Obama at the White House. So Madam President, I think you would agree with me that this past year has taught us all something; there have been some lessons we have learned from this great challenge.

Particularly, first, the need to go all-in at the earliest sign of some kind of major outbreak of any deadly or infectious disease. The most effective action is preventative action, and delay or waiting can make the challenge just that much greater. Second, the critical need to upgrade the health infrastructure ensuring that countries have the backing that they need and the support they need, because the difference between rich and poor should not spell the difference between life and death. And the third lesson I think we’ve learned is the absolute importance of teamwork in responding to this kind of a crisis.

Now the last point, the value of teamwork, has been shown dramatically in recent months. In combatting the Ebola epidemic, the United States took a very vigorous, every-hand-on-deck approach with the leadership of President Obama, in order to immediately respond as strongly as possible, combined with the leadership that President Sirleaf provided in order to maximize Liberia’s own efforts with those of our partners.

And President Obama, as I think everybody knows, made a courageous decision early on to deploy 3,000 troops – American troops – at a time where there were questions about what would specifically be needed and how much could be done – in order to build treatment centers and assist in training health workers. The State Department, the USAID, the Center for Disease Control, the Department of Health and Human Services here in America all came together to play critical roles. And our assistance, including our food aid, totaled more than $1 billion. American NGOs were incredibly helpful. And the fact that the United States made such a broad commitment actually encouraged other countries to say we, too, need to join this fight, and they stepped up.

In responding to the crisis, the global community was indispensable. This was not something any one country was able to do by itself. But let me be clear: Our efforts, all of the global community’s efforts, would never have succeeded without the strong leadership in West Africa both at the national and at the local levels. And President Sirleaf herself was at the forefront of those leadership efforts. She acted with force and determination to educate her people about this disease, to marshal the resources, and to establish the right set of priorities and to make decisions on a daily basis that empowered the people who wanted to help to actually be able to do so.

So for their part, local healthcare workers risked, and in many cases gave their lives so that they could save many other lives and ease the pain of other people. Villagers and townspeople formed committees to set up hand-washing stations, quarantine households, to shield caregivers, to supervise burials, and to screen visitors. The result, quite frankly, has been absolutely astonishing. Last September, the CDC estimated by that this time – these were the estimates we were dealing with – more than a million cases might have been diagnosed. In fact, we are roughly at 1/50th of that number, and new cases in Liberia are down by more than 95 percent.

So this is remarkable news, good news at a moment where many people wonder about the ability of governance to be able to deliver good news at all. But the truth is as long as new infections are still being recorded, at even low levels, this cannot be declared over. Careful monitoring of every Ebola case and everyone in contact with infected patients is essential, and our goal is not to contain the disease, it is to defeat the disease. And that means zero new cases.

So today we continue to mourn the loss of so many people. But we’re also inspired by the difference that these months have made. Daily existence in Liberia and elsewhere in the region is no longer being held hostage to this disease. And body collection vehicles have disappeared from the streets. Schools that were closed have resumed classes. Liberia has reopened its borders and hope has returned to its citizens. And people, when they meet each other now, have begun shaking hands again.

So earlier this week the Millennium Development Corporation in Liberia signed a $2.8 million compact to assist with the recovery. And that was part of the conversation that the President and I had this morning. This is part of America’s ongoing commitment to Liberia, and it is one of – it is sort of a recognition of the fact that Liberia is also one of our staunchest allies in Africa.

Since the end of the civil war in 2003, the United States had invested more than 2 billion to help Liberia to rebuild and go forward. And even prior to the Ebola outbreak, the United States was the largest bilateral donor to Liberia’s health sector, working to increase the health sector capacity under programs such as the President’s malaria and global health initiatives, Feed the Future and the USAID Water and Development Strategy.

So Madam President, I’m told there’s an African proverb, “Rain does not fall on one roof alone.” And the meaning of that is obviously we’re all in this together. We have to stand together, and thousands of miles may separate our two countries, but for most of the past 168 years, the United States and Liberia have stood together, and that remains the case today. We both support democratic values and the development of inclusive societies. We both seek higher living standards through sustainable growth, and we share a commitment to human dignity and to peace both within and among nations.

So it’s been a great pleasure for me to able to share thoughts with you. I have admired you greatly and watched you from the distance, and we’ve said hello a couple times before, but I thank you today for the conversation we’ve had, and I look forward to continuing it at the White House shortly. Thank you, Madam President.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Mr. Secretary, I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to meet with you, to exchange views. I come also to express on behalf of the Liberian people our deep appreciation for the support which we have received as we continue to fight this deadly virus. We want to thank President Obama for the strong leadership which he has shown, for the call to action that he has made. We thank the Administration; we thank the Congress in a bipartisan way for the support they’ve given to the Administration’s call for their support. And we thank the many U.S. institutions – NIH, CDC, the public health service, DART – all of those; the faith-based institutions, the American public at large, that all came together in a very strong partnership with us to be able to address and to fight this disease.

Last year was a difficult year for Liberia because we had and already obtained 10 consecutive years of peace, we had solved a lot of the problems that came out of two decades of war. We had addressed our debt issue, we were rebuilding our institutions, repairing our infrastructure, putting in the laws and the strategies that would’ve enabled us to be able to meet our Vision 2030 agenda, our agenda for transformation. When Ebola struck, the chances of all of that being wiped away confronted us.

In the early days, we did not know what to do. We were fearful, people died, our nurses and doctors who tried to treat what they thought were ordinary diseases such as malaria and yellow fever were confronted with something that they had no answer for. And I’m sure many people that looked at the television screen and saw Liberia as a place of disaster, everything was going wrong. But our people were resilient, and they were determined that we were not going to die, we’re not going to lose our livelihoods, we’re not going to reverse the gains that we have made. And so we all came together. We came together with not much capacity, not much resources, but came together with a great determination to save our nation and to ensure that we seize back the future that we had so carefully built over the past years. We could not do it without the partnership.

And the partnership that came from the United States galvanized and crystallized an international partnership that joined the United States in doing this, and this is why our message – it was a bold action, as you said, for the Administration to send military people out there, to send soldiers. That’s not something – we’ve never had boots on the ground in Liberia. It was the first time. But the landing of that just sent a big message to the Liberian people that the United States was really with us, and they provided the kind of service that have enhanced the capability of our own military because they worked together in building those centers.

The United States never closed to Liberia, even though we know there were great pressure on the part of a fearful citizen here, and we understood their fears because this was an unknown enemy to all of us. But President Obama and the Administration, supported by the Congress, stood firm and said, “We will continue to work with Liberia. We’ll continue to do this.” He went to the United Nations – you were there, I believe.

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON SIRLEAF: And you all took a very strong stance. That message that went to the global community also engaged them. And so today, because of this strong partnership, we can say that we haven’t reached a place where we say we’re free of this disease, because we have neighboring countries and they send you the same messages of thanks and appreciation. But we have the place where we’re now confident that going forward, we can indeed get to zero for the required period, and we can indeed rebuild our health infrastructure, start our economic recovery even now as we try to get to zero, promote the regional support that ensures that all of our countries are free as a means of removing the threat that will remain if none of our countries are free.

To you, to the American people, we say thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much for a very eloquent and very personal statement. We thank you, appreciate it. I think we’ll be ready to take a few questions.

MS. PSAKI: Yes. Abigail Williams from NBC will be asking the questions today.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, what are your expectations for the second round of U.S.-Cuba talks here at the State Department today? Do you expect an embassy to be open within a matter of weeks or months? And the Cubans are saying that a precondition for opening or establishing full diplomatic relations is being removed from the state sponsor of terror list. Do you expect that to create a delay in opening the embassy, and why are they still on that list?

And Madam President, what more are you asking of the United States to help prepare for the next outbreak of a similar deadly disease?

SECRETARY KERRY: Do you want to go first? Go ahead, please.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON SIRLEAF: We’re asking for a continuation of the partnership, first to help us get to zero, and that means supporting our regional initiative. We’re asking that we work together in a dialogue to look at our economic recovery that will strengthen our health infrastructure, that will get us to continue with our prioritization of agriculture to feed ourselves. Infrastructure – making sure that we have the roads and the power systems and the clean water systems now that our schools are open. That through dialogue, through understanding, this partnership can prepare Liberia not only to prevent any possible reoccurrence, but enable us to deliver better health services and a better life to our people.

SECRETARY KERRY: Let me just say that we are very committed to working with our friends from Liberia in order to be able to maximize the possibility of economic recovery, which is critical, and it requires bringing the private sector back, it requires addressing the energy sector, building health infrastructure. There are a lot of moving parts, but we certainly feel – and I know President Obama shares this – that having put so much effort into stopping the disease, and now we really want to try to help provide the future that provides hope and a sense of possibility, and we will continue to work on that.

With respect to Cuba and the state sponsorship of terrorism, even as we are standing here now, negotiations are going on upstairs to deal with the issue of renewal of diplomatic relations. That’s one set of fairly normal negotiations with respect to movement of diplomats, access, travel, different things, the very sort of technical process. The state sponsorship of terrorism designation is a separate process. It is not a negotiation. It is an evaluation that is made under a very strict set of requirements congressionally mandated, and that has to be pursued separately, and it is being pursued separately. And we will wait for that normal process to be completed. It requires a finding that, over the course of the last six-month period, the country in question has not been engaged in supporting, aiding, abetting – different language – international terrorist acts. And that evaluation will be made appropriately, and nothing will be done with respect to the list until the evaluation is completed.

MS. PSAKI: Thank you, everyone.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all. Thank you, Madam President.



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