“Unbiased voices of reason in Albania have no outlet”, says US Ambassador

This is an exclusive interview with Mr. Alexander Arvizu, the Ambassador of USA in Albania. He answers questions of historia-ime.com regarding LGBT rights, women rights, children’s rights, freedom of media and he talks about the challenges that Albania should and is facing while he reveals how his own story with the country and its people has been…

Mr. Ambassador, it is really an honour for us to have you in this exclusive interview for Historia Ime, which in your language means “My Story.” You have now your own story in this country. How would you describe it in a few words?

My story in Albania would be filled with great friendships, daunting challenges, and an enduring hope for Albania’s continued progress. I have had the honor of representing the United States of America to one of our most supportive allies. I value the opportunities that I have had to help promote democracy in this country. The best part of my story in Albania is that it is not over yet!

Historia Ime covers a variety of issues, including LGBT rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, elderly people’s rights, etc.

What is your comment on human rights movement in general, in Albania?

I have been encouraged by much of the progress that I have seen since arriving in Albania. Civil society and the government both have made progress in combating domestic violence, trafficking in persons, and in defending some vulnerable groups, like the LGBT community. We saw some of the first public activities from the LGBT community last year, and it was encouraging to see the support provided by state institutions, like the police and local officials, in support of these groups. That isn’t to say that our efforts are done–there are still areas that need to see further progress. Domestic violence is a plague that affects many countries, and some vulnerable groups, like the Roma and many other ethnic minorities, still feel very vulnerable. I was very discouraged to read recent reports from a UN and WorldVision study regarding Albania’s gender imbalance at birth. Sex selective abortions favoring male babies is a horrible practice, something that should shock Albanians everywhere. I echo the concerns expressed by Maternity Hospital Director Rubena Moisiu in her recent interview: a gender imbalance over the long term can devastate Albania’s social balance, peace, economy, and is an attack on women. There is a lot of work left to do, but I think the progress on some fronts leads me to be optimistic that the overall human rights environment can improve when civil society and the government work together.

You now have a deeper and concrete knowledge of the Albanian reality. What might be, according to your opinion, the most difficult challenges of our society in its efforts to advance the respect of human rights?

A society needs two essential elements to guarantee respect for human rights: it has to have the vision to see human rights as a priority, and it needs a mechanism to protect individuals. The government cannot be expected to prioritize contrary to the people it governs. If the Albanian people do not work to protect minorities, if families do not strive to protect women and children, it is unrealistic to assume that the government can step in and act on their behalf. Albanians are renowned for their hospitality and kindness. When that is directed towards their communities and their country, the potential for change is massive. This is why I launched the ACT Now! initiative: it is an effort to get people to take action based on their community’s values; to work with their elected leaders; and to improve their communities, including in the field of human rights.

The second element, a mechanism for protection, is found in a transparent and fair judiciary. Victims must have confidence that they can go to the courts, trust that the law will be applied fairly, and that they will be protected accordingly. If the people do not have confidence in the transparency of their courts, they will always be subject to abuses without any defense.

A question concerning us at Historia Ime, and me personally: Albania scored the 96th position at the Press Index of Reporters without Borders, the worst ranking in the region. According to your opinion, what are the main issues regarding freedom of expression and access to information in Albania, and what, in your opinion, should be done to overcome them?

I don’t believe that people in Albania are necessarily restricted in what they can say. I have seen and heard every kind of criticism and personal attack imaginable levied against leaders of all political persuasions. I believe that the greater challenge is that unbiased voices of reason have no outlet. There is a hunger here for unbiased reporting. People want to know that the newspaper they are reading or the television news show that they are watching isn’t being funded by a business or political party with an agenda to use media as a tool to sell a specific idea. This is not something government or politics alone will solve. I believe in most cases the information is there, but people have to demand it and they have to be willing to pay a price for it.

President Barack Obama became the first US President ever to mention the word “gay” in his second Inauguration Speech last week in Washington DC. How will the LGBT situation change in the world during the next four years by Mr. Obama’s Presidency? How will his policy of LGBT liberation affect Albania as well?

It is impossible to predict the future, but President Obama’s policy on LGBT rights has been very straightforward and simple: LGBT rights are human rights. The last four years have brought increased recognition and protections for LGBT individuals in the United States. I believe that trend will continue. Globally, our efforts to protect LGBT communities from abuse and to promote human rights have had significant impact, even here in Albania.

The LGBT community in Albania faces a unique challenge: anti-discrimination laws are well written, and for the most part there has been positive support from the government for the LGBT community. We recognize the Albanian government’s efforts to promote human rights for the LGBT community.

Prime Minister Berisha has spoken out on various occasions in defense of the LGBT community’s rights to exercise free speech, to demonstrate, to live without fear of abuse and discrimination. However, society is still very antagonistic towards LGBT individuals. The struggle here is not so much political as it is social. Change in Albania, I believe, will come when families and friends are able to put faces to the term ‘LGBT.’ I am always impressed at how people’s impression of LGBT individuals changes, when they have an opportunity to get to know them, when they discover a good friend is gay or lesbian, or when they work with them. LGBT individuals in Albania are their own best ambassadors. We are looking merely for ways to support them and their message of tolerance.

One of the most marginalized groups and probably the most forgotten one are the elderly. Does the lack of care towards them mean a lack of democracy in our country?

I do not know if I would characterize this as a lack of democracy. Care for the elderly is viewed differently by different cultures. I have spent much of my career in East Asia, where family obligations to care for aging parents are well defined and very unique. In the United States, we approach care for the elderly differently.

Independence and privacy are highly valued and we have many communities to help many elderly to live on their own for as long possible. Caring for any vulnerable population is a shared responsibility between the government and citizens. Government offers social safety nets such as affordable health care and housing within their ability to do so, but citizens, too, have a responsibility to care for the elderly. I don’t know if this is necessarily part of democracy as much as it is building a humane society.

Some local activists, such as the lawyers of Res Publica, a pro bono legal organization, and also the EU, have been concerned recently, because many marginalized groups or individuals are not able to follow their causes in the Court because of the high court fee. They may be hundreds of thousands of Albanians living under the( poverty line) , so that means that this is not just an administrative issue, but a real human rights issue. How can we deal with this issue?

Access to justice is one of the primary building blocks of a functioning democracy. The judiciary, more than any other institution in government, protects the rights of minorities and vulnerable populations. Obviously, the court has a right to charge fees. In the United States we have numerous courts, nearly all of which charge some kind of fee for filing cases. However, we also have mechanisms that allow the court to waive those fees in cases where the party is unable to pay them. It’s an important exception that makes it possible for all citizens to have equal access to the judiciary.

Women’s rights activists are urging for the maximum punishment of those who commit crimes against women and towards everyone who is violating women. This is a result of the alarming cases of violence towards women. What might be your message for this situation?

Gender-based violence is notoriously pervasive and difficult to combat, because it often occurs in the privacy of homes and behind closed doors.

Albania has laws to punish domestic violence, and I think good progress has been made on this front. Parliament and civil society have cooperated on this issue in the past, and I think we have seen positive results.

Perpetrators of domestic violence should be subject to lawful punishment. That can’t happen unless laws are implemented. I think there has been progress, but more can be done.

I think we can improve the mechanisms that encourage women to come forward and file complaints with the authorities. We know that victims often feel more comfortable approaching female police officers, and I applaud efforts within the Ministry of Interior to diversify the police force. There are some excellent shelters that provide safe havens for abused women, but not enough of them to serve the entire population and they often lack funding.

Fortunately, society is becoming more aware of domestic violence, because more and more people are talking about it now. There are television debates about the topic, workshops devoted to it, and public marches. Educational campaigns focused on both victims and perpetrators can help discourage abuse and educate abusers about available resources to help them. We need to focus not just on punishment, but also on protection and prevention.

Do you think we have a real feminism movement?

I do not think that a foreign Ambassador can define this for Albania. I think that there are women who are actively engaged in promoting gender equality. I think that there are some men who are actively engaged in promoting gender equality too. Feminist movements are going to look different based upon when and where they occur. If you ask me whether I think women in Albania are demanding more equitable treatment, better representation in government, and more leadership roles in business and society, I would say in general, ’Yes.’ I think that is a very positive thing.

Coming to the end, with the last question, three LGBT organizations in Albania have announced that they will organize during September of 2013 the first Gay Pride March in Tirana. Would you be present if we invite you, in a symbolic and concrete support for LGBT movement in Albania? Is that possible for a US Ambassador nowadays?

Many U.S. Ambassadors have marched in Gay Pride marches around the world. We proudly support the LGBT community in Albania, and I think you may see a few of us in the Gay Pride March in Tirana!
Thank you
Thank you!

Interviewed by Kristi Pinderi
Article by Redaksia
Source – Historia-ime.com