In fact, it seems that all US Ambassadors, defying the general stereotype about anglophones' alleged enmity with foreign tongues, make a point of learning to speak Lithuanian during their term in Vilnius.
And yet, Ms Derse, who is finishing her term this year, has certainly went the extra mile to connect with the Lithuanian society. No previous US ambassador has thrown so many receptions in their cozy Žvėrynas residence. Never before has the embassy cooperated so intensively with Lithuanian NGOs as well as government officials. The ultimate proof of the Ambassador's deep bond with Lithuania is the fact that when she leaves for the US this summer, she is taking along a new Derse family member adopted during her stay in Vilnius.
Part of this new intensity comes directly from Washington. The US foreign policy, headed by the untiring Hillary Clinton, has put much emphasis on multi-level cooperation. "America’s ambassadors were instructed that diplomacy was no longer a matter of talking only to other governments," as The Economist has recently put it in its survey of Clinton-Obama's foreign policy, "they were to see themselves as CEOs of multi-agency missions, reaching out to the whole of society."
And so they did. In an interview to 15min, Ambassador Derse talks about the Embassy's contribution to the recently-passed legislation combating domestic violence against women (because "it's no more acceptable to beat someone in the home than it is in a bar, restaurant, in the street") as well as efforts to promote human rights and civil society initiatives ("What we believe in the United States is that democracy is something you develop every day, you do not stop," as she put it).
- Women's rights has been a big issue during your term. Why do you find the topic so important?
- Well, the promotion of women's rights and the empowerment of women is a fundamental principle of the US foreign policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has instructed all embassies in the world to work to enhance women's rights and empowerment.
And the reason we do that as part of our foreign policy is because there's a growing body of evidence showing that in countries where women are fully engaged in political, social, and economic life, where they are not marginalized and pushed aside, that those countries are more prosperous and more stable. So there's a practical reason. Then there's also a reason of human rights – women should enjoy equal rights.
- Where does Lithuania stand in this respect?
- Well, Lithuania is such an interesting country because there are so many women who are in political life – look at your leadership, President, Finance Minister, Defense Minister, Speaker of the Parliament – look at your cultural life, look at academic life, look at business, look at NGOs. Many women are active and that's very positive.
We worked very closely with NGOs, government, and other institutions last year on the issue of domestic violence. It was really a major step forward when Lithuania passed the law criminalizing domestic violence. And the reaction has been really interesting to watch. The media has been very responsibly reporting this problem. And we had a round-table at my residence with prosecutors, the police, NGOs, and diplomats and government officials to talk about how the international partners could continue to help Lithuanian institutions implement it.
- What are ways to further improve the law?
- It seems that right now there is a need, for example, for a very close cooperation between officials, like police and judicial system, and NGOs, who are working on the problem. We discovered in the US that you need to have that, a unified response from society, NGOs, religious groups as well as the police and the legal system in order to really tackle the problem.
There's probably a need for some kind of national hot line, where people can call in easily and get help when they need. Certainly, the children's rights – this is the next step. Violence against women at home often spills over to violence against children. And that's an issue that needs to be examined.
- Do you consider yourself a feminist?
- I'm very leery of using terms like that, because it depends on what you mean by feminist. On the one hand, you could say that I'm a very traditional woman. I've been married for almost 30 years to the same man, we're a religious family, we take seriously our vows, love and honor, and support each other till death do us part. I have four children, we raised them together. That's a pretty traditional profile, I would say.
On the other hand, I was raised by my family, my father and mother who were also traditional and religious people, to believe that I had to be self-reliant. I never had any question in my mind that I would have a career, that I would work, that I would support myself. And so I went to university, I went to graduate school and I have been working my entire adult life.
So you tell me – am I a feminist? Do I believe that women should have equal rights? Absolutely. I think it's not only a matter of human rights, but it's also really good for a country, because, as I've said before, when you pull women into and use the talents of all your people, women and girls as well as men and boys, the country is much better off.
- The US has also been very interested in issues to do with Lithuania's Jews. The embassy was among the first to commend the government for its move last week to authorize a fund to administer compensation for pre-war Jewish property.
- I've always said on this issue, that the whole question of examining Lithuania's past and the Holocaust and addressing issues that are legacy of the Holocaust is a Lithuanian issue for Lithuanians to decide. The US takes an interest, of course, because we are partners with Lithuania; it's an issue of human rights; and there is an issue of historical justice that matter to the US.
Lithuania in recent years has really done an extraordinary job in moving forward on those very sensitive issue. And we applaud it, the step taken by the government. First of all, the law was passed in the parliament by the large majority and it was really heartening to see that there was a consensus across the parties, a very responsible and applaudable consensus that this law should be passed.
And then the government moved ahead and appointed the foundation to implement the law. That is a really significant step forward. And you've seen people like our special envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism, Hannah Rosenthal, who has been to Lithuania many times, applaud that step. I just saw today the Israeli Foreign Ministry applauded that and so did the American Jewish community.
I think that there is still a lot of history to be worked out. During the fifty years of the Soviet occupation, I don't think much true history was taught about what happened during World War Two. And so I think the Lithuanian society and especially young people still have a lot to do to look at that history and begin to analyze it, confront hard truths, and incorporate it into what this society is today.
- How do you regard the policy of drawing a parity of sorts between Nazi and Soviet regimes? Some Lithuanians claim that what Soviets did to the Lithuanian people, too, amounts to a genocide.
- Well, first of all, the use of this word, genocide, is a special issue. The word is very charged and not just in the Lithuanian situation, but around the world. And it's an international legal term. So I leave the issue of the word to the international lawyers.
Let me talk more about the issue of does history need to be analyzed and discussed. All history. And the US thinks that it does. Examining historically, discussing, researching, and drawing out the facts about what happened, for example, during the Soviet occupation here, does not amount to equalizing it with the Holocaust. In fact, of all Lithuanian officials and citizens that I've worked with on this issue of the Holocaust, no-one has ever told me that these two things are the same.
Because they are different. The Holocaust was a unique state-sponsored ideology of hate that was targeting directly at annihilating an entire people. The Jewish people. Other people got caught up in that – Roma, gay people, political prisoners – but the ideology was to annihilate an entire specific people. That's a unique and terrible thing.
The Soviet occupation, what happened under Stalin, as more and more information is coming out, is really tragic. And Lithuania had the misfortune of suffering both of those things. But I do not agree with those who say that to look into the history of what happened under Soviets amounts to equating that with the Holocaust.
I think there's no question that many of my Lithuanian friends an colleagues would like the West to understand better what happened under the Soviet occupation. And you know this book that just came out, by Rūta Šepetys? “Tarp pilkų debesų” (“Between Shades of Grey”)? I read it in one sitting, because it's relatively easy. It's fiction, but she based it on true stories she heard from her family members and others in Lithuania who were deported. I think it's very powerful. It's been published in 29 countries, translated into 26 languages and it really brought this issue to broad public attention – and that's a good thing.
- I thought that that the narrative of the book – starting with people being taken from their home, boarding a train that takes them away – very much reminds of similar stories about Jewish deportations to camps.
- Well, I think those personal stories are very important. And I remember the first line of her book. Do you? “They took me in my night gown.” When you read that, you just can't stop, you have to continue and find out what happened. I think you're right, though.
- LGBT rights is another issue that the current US administration pays particular attention to. Secretary Clinton went as far as suggesting that US financial support would be contingent on foreign countries' policies on that issue. Why is it so important?
- Because this administration, secretary Clinton, and president Obama are very committed to human rights and they believe that it should be a core part of our foreign policy that we promote human rights in the countries with which we have relationships. Secretary Clinton gave a speech on December 6 where she stated very clearly that we believe LGBT rights are human rights. We believe that LGBT people have the same right as everyone else to live in safety, in security, exercise all of their human rights to not be discriminated against.
- Is legal partnership part of these human rights?
- I think that's an issue that countries will decide. There's a discussion in the United States on this issue right now. And so every country has to decide on those social questions. But the basic fact that gay rights are human rights and that gay people have a right like everyone else to exercise their fundamental human rights, that is not something that anyone should question and argue.
Secretary Clinton, in her speech on December 6, said that when you don't understand something, when it's different and strange and maybe considered alien to traditional values, it's scary, it's frightening. But in fact homosexuality is a human reality, she said, and it exists in every country in the world.
And we're talking about real people, we're talking about kids in high school who might be discovering that they're homosexual. How do they feel? Are they bullied, do they feel isolated and alone? We know in the United States that there have been hate crimes, kids have died, or committed suicide, because they feel alienated. That's simply wrong. We know how parents feel when they discover that maybe they have a homosexual child. These are real human situations. This is the reality, it's not some, excuse me for using this term, ancient Soviet notion of scary.
We have a debate in the US about these issues. Just recently, our military has changed the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, and there was a great deal of concern that it wouldn't work, that our military would not be able to deal with that. In fact, it was completely accepted. And common men at the US marine corps – my son is a marine, they're tough guys – said they were wrong in assessing that this might not work. It worked.
- Have you been following legislation of the current government deemed by some to be homophobic?
- You mean some of the things that have been proposed periodically? I've seen, there were proposals to criminalize providing information. It's still pending in the parliament. Yes, I have been following and continue to follow things like that. The Secretary of State has asked embassies, the ambassadors to be active, to work against the criminalization of homosexuality. And we will. We will work with partners in government, we will work with partners in media, we will work with partners in the NGOs.
Also, on human rights more broadly. What we believe in the United States is that democracy is something you develop every day, you do not stop. In that regard, on March 11 this year, there was this Freedom march. I was unfortunately in the United States, I couldn't participate, but I thought it was a great development. People came together on the occasion of Lithuania's national day to celebrate your freedom and your status as a strong democracy, that was really positive. The US condemns manifestations of antisemitism or homophobia or xenophobia everywhere in the world and we applaud when people celebrate freedom and democracy.
- I've heard that during your stay in Lithuania, you've adopted a new family member.
- I'm happy to tell you, it's a great story. First of all, our family is a dog family. We've always had dogs. We have four children and we've had a black lab and a little pug for many years. And then they got old and died.
I've been wanting to have a dog again ever since, but my husband said, no more puppies. Because you have to train them, they last twenty years, and he wasn't sure he wanted to make a commitment to a puppy. So I said, how about an older dog, if I can find one? He agreed to that.
And the reason I thought of that is that I had a good friend who worked for the US customs service. She told me some years ago that our customs service had a program so that you could get a retired customs dog. When they finish their work and have no home to go to, then the customs had a procedure so that they could make these dogs available to people who wanted to adopt them.
So I thought, what if maybe in Lithuania they had such a thing. And so we approached the customs service here to find out. We discovered that while there's no such program yet – I think they are working and developing it – they did have several dogs whose trainers were unable to take them. The practice here is when a dog retires, its trainer takes the dog, but sometimes the trainer can't. And there was a dog available. So I said I would love to adopt that dog. And I did.
She's a wonderful dog, her name is Tracey, black lab, extremely well-trained, she speaks Lithuanian and English – I don't know how but she does – and she came to live with us last spring. She worked in Klaipėda for nine years. Really, these dogs do service for the country, her job was to smell cargo for explosives and for drugs. But now she's happily retired at my residence and she's proven to be a very social animal, she loves parties.
- How did she adapt to you?
- Instant bonding, let's put it that way. She's a wonderful dog and if you saw her, you would know she is very friendly and she loves parties, because she can walk around and everyone pets her.
The customs service worked with the embassy and we worked with Užupis Gymnasium. We had a sort of retirement ceremony for Tracey with the students. Mayor Zuokas came and the customs people brought some of their young dogs who did tricks to the kids and they explained how they trained customs dogs. Then they gave Tracey this very nice collar with thanks for service. She wears that for all of her parties.
She's a wonderful dog and I plan to take her back to the US, as great memory of our time in Lithuania, as long as the vet tells me she can make the trip and won't suffer on that long voyage.