03/27/2014 11:50 am ET Updated May 27, 2014

Brazil Should Give Asylum to Edward Snowden


It has been eight months since former NSA analyst Edward Snowden began leaking documents that exposed the abusive espionage programs being used by the United States government. In September, Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia after a tumultuous escape to Hong Kong. Despite this, his situation is still precarious and uncertain due to repeated threats from the American government. He has few options outside of Russia, and Brazil is his best option.

Snowden's revelations uncovered the existence of expansive government programs that monitored and intercepted emails, social media accounts, phone conversations and cellphone messages of millions of citizens around the world. Although the media has highlighted the spying on governments and large companies, the most serious abuses were those carried out against citizens. Under the pretext of combating terrorism, the mass monitoring of personal communication invades everyone's privacy and establishes a true global vigilance regime.

Privacy is a very important civil right because it is a prerequisite to freedom of expression, freedom to assemble and freedom to organize politically. In order to speak freely, assemble freely and organize freely, it is necessary to be free from state monitoring. This is why the first civil rights laws, created in England during the 17th century to limit the absolutist government, prohibited the state from intercepting correspondence and searching homes. Snowden's actions are part of this long tradition that protects our fundamental freedoms. It is no coincidence that Snowden invoked the principals of the Nuremberg trials, which judged the crimes of Nazism in 1945. One of these principals establishes that individuals have the obligation to violate a nation's laws in order to prevent crimes against humanity.

Snowden put himself at serious risk when he leaked the documents to the press. His current political situation is vulnerable and full of uncertainty. Supporters of the American government have accused Snowden of "theft," "non-authorized communication of national defense information" and "voluntary communication of classified information to non-authorized parties." These accusations can lead to a prison sentence of up to 30 years. Once on American soil, he still runs the risk of being accused of more serious crimes such as "treason" and "delivery of defense information to a foreign government" -- both can lead to death penalty.

Although he is currently in Russia, a nuclear power outside of the United States' sphere of influence, his asylum is temporary and the authoritarian nature of the Russian regime is in conflict with Snowden's desire to protect civil liberties. His options outside of Russia are not very appealing. Small countries in South America outside of the U.S. sphere of influence such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia have signaled that they would receive him, but they truly do not have the political stature to confront the United States. The shameful inspection of the Bolivian president's aircraft in July -- which was carried out to make sure that the aircraft was not transporting Snowden -- shows how small countries would have difficulty confronting the consequences of an asylum. The inability of Ecuador to obtain safe conduct to remove political refugee Julian Assange from their embassy in London also demonstrates the difficulties faced by a small country that confronts the interests of the United States.

Snowden's other options are not much better. The rest of Europe is aligned with American policy. France, Spain and Italy all refused permission for Evo Morales' plane to enter their airspace, forcing the president to land in Austria. Among the peripheral powers, India is an historic ally of the United States, and China has an even more authoritarian regime that Russia. Brazil is perhaps the country that best combines the three necessary conditions for giving adequate asylum to Snowden: having sufficient political strength to resist U.S. pressure, boasting an independent foreign policy, and being a liberal democracy with formal respect for civil liberties.

However, President Dilma Rousseff has no interest in welcoming Snowden. Although she was infuriated by the espionage that targeted both herself and important Brazilian companies, the political costs of a confrontation with the Unites States are too high. Brazil will only provide asylum to Snowden if the citizenry of Brazil pressures the government to do so. Accomplishing this is our responsibility.