Brazilian President Rousseff's UN Speech is the Most Important One You Missed

Amid all of the speculation as to whether President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will or will not shake hands, the mainstream media largely ignored Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's critical opening speech at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday.

Rousseff was highly critical of the NSA spy program, explicitly stating that the United States’ “tampering ... in the affairs of other countries is a breach of international law” and “a situation of grave violation of human rights and of civil liberties.”

Such rhetoric is not unusual for Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president, as her speech was a reiteration of her announcement earlier last week that she was postponing a planned October visit to the U.S. in protest over allegations that the NSA was spying on Brazil’s citizens, corporations, and government. For many observers, the cancellation was considered an embarrassing snub, even leaving some to consider whether American clout had taken a major hit. While Obama conceded that he “understands and regrets” Rousseff’s concerns, Rousseff was not content with letting bygones be bygones. Instead, she used the opening speech of the UN General Assembly to further reprimand the U.S. government and demand explanations, apologies, and guarantees that such “illegal actions” wouldn’t be repeated.

Indeed, Rousseff called on the UN to pass legislation regulating the governance and use of the internet, stating that the “[t]ime is ripe to create the conditions to prevent cyberspace from being used as a weapon of war, through espionage, sabotage, and attacks against systems and infrastructure of other countries.” While the media mostly chose to center its focus elsewhere, with a particular emphasis on the prospect of American and Iranian leaders meeting for the first time in 36 years and Senator Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) ineffective attempt at defunding Obamacare, the American government should not take Rousseff’s speech lightly.

To begin with, Rousseff’s rebuke is likely to have a negative impact on various transactions the U.S. government was actively hammering out with Brazil. Among the activities planned for Rousseff’s October visit was the execution of multiple deals between the U.S. and Brazil, including Brazil's $4 billion acquisition of Boeing F-18 jets, oil exploration and bio-fuels technology, and an agreement for the U.S. to use a satellite-launching site it has long coveted.

But the U.S. government was not the only one to take a hit. In the American private sector, it has been estimated that as a result of the fallout from the NSA scandal, the U.S. cloud-computing industry could lose up to $35 billion by 2016. Brazil has the second and third most users on Twitter and Facebook in the world, respectively. Additionally, Brazil has South America’s largest economy. It would be foolish and imprudent to callously ignore Rousseff’s complaints.

Perhaps more ominously, however, is the fact that she has ordered online independence measures for Brazil to protect itself from the NSA. Such measures include: laying underwater fiber optic cables directly to Europe, building new internet exchanges in Brazil, and creating a government-run and encrypted email system — all effectively insulating Brazil from the U.S.’s domination of internet traffic.

While it is understandable why such an economically burgeoning country like Brazil would want to undertake these measures (after all, Rousseff has alleged that the NSA hacked into the computer network of Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras), there is a growing concern that repressive governments will adopt similar procedures to impose “greater technical control over the internet to crush free expression at home.” What may begin as a call for information and telecommunication technology independence from the U.S. can quickly devolve into a situation like North Korea, where online services for the majority of individuals is provided through a free, domestic only network.

Nonetheless, the international anger over the NSA program is more than justified. Rousseff has rightly pointed out that the U.S. government cannot sacrifice the rights of others to protect its own citizens’ safety. “The right to safety of citizens of one country can never be guaranteed by violating fundamental human rights of citizens of another country.” Indeed, if the NSA continues to indiscriminately intercept the personal data of citizens, corporate information, and foreign diplomatic missions, the U.S. may find that it can no longer consider emerging powerhouses such as Brazil among a shortening list of friendly nations.

Unquestionably, terrorism should be fought tooth and nail, but never at the expense of another country’s sovereignty and its citizens’ right to privacy. For “[i]n the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy.”

A full transcript of President Rousseff's speech can be found here.