It was expected that the Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, would raise the issue of NSA spying when she addressed the opening session of the UN General Assembly in New York this week. But few would have predicted that her speech would be quite so excoriating (pdf), especially since it was given in the presence of President Obama, who spoke immediately after her.
Rousseff launched straight into her denunciation of online spying:
Recent revelations concerning the activities of a global network of electronic espionage have caused indignation and repudiation in public opinion around the world.
In Brazil, the situation was even more serious, as it emerged that we were targeted by this intrusion. Personal data of citizens was intercepted indiscriminately. Corporate information — often of high economic and even strategic value — was at the center of espionage activity. Also, Brazilian diplomatic missions, among them the Permanent Mission to the United Nations and the Office of the President of the Republic itself, had their communications intercepted. Tampering in such a manner in the affairs of other countries is a breach of International Law and is an affront to the principles that must guide the relations among them, especially among friendly nations. A sovereign nation can never establish itself to the detriment of another sovereign nation. The right to safety of citizens of one country can never be guaranteed by violating fundamental human rights of citizens of another country.
Rousseff explicitly rejected the “because terrorism” excuse so often trotted out to justify such global surveillance:
The arguments that the illegal interception of information and data aims at protecting nations against terrorism cannot be sustained.
Brazil, Mr. President, knows how to protect itself. We reject, fight and do not harbor terrorist groups.
She pointed out the key importance of the right to personal privacy and national sovereignty, both called into question by blanket surveillance:
As many other Latin Americans, I fought against authoritarianism and censorship, and I cannot but defend, in an uncompromising fashion, the right to privacy of individuals and the sovereignty of my country. In the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy. In the absence of the respect for sovereignty, there is no basis for the relationship among Nations.
She reminded Obama that Brazil was still waiting for an explanation of the NSA’s actions and a promise that they wouldn’t happen again:
We expressed to the Government of the United States our disapproval, and demanded explanations, apologies and guarantees that such procedures will never be repeated.
The President of Brazil then confirmed that her country will be taking measures to protect itself better from future attempts to spy on its citizens and companies, but without going into details:
Brazil, Mr. President, will redouble its efforts to adopt legislation, technologies and mechanisms to protect us from the illegal interception of communications and data.
Finally, Rousseff called for the United Nations to get involved:
The United Nations must play a leading role in the effort to regulate the conduct of States with regard to these technologies.
For this reason, Brazil will present proposals for the establishment of a civilian multilateral framework for the governance and use of the Internet and to ensure the effective protection of data that travels through the web.
That’s unlikely to go down well with many Western countries, already worried about what form Internet governance will take in the future. But many emerging nations would be happy to reduce the influence of the West, especially the US, on how the Internet is run, and would doubtless support any such initiative at the UN.
Even if it’s unlikely that Rousseff’s speech will lead to any immediate actions — either by the US or by the United Nations — it confirms the emergence of Brazil as an increasingly powerful and independent force in the world. Rousseff’s stinging rebuke to the US contrasts with the feeble protests from just a few European Union politicians, even though their citizens and institutions have been spied upon comprehensively by the NSA and GCHQ for years. Once again we are seeing interesting knock-on consequences of Snowden’s leaks, with the standing of Brazil and the other BRICS countries rising even as those of the US and EU begin to fall.