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When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff meets with United States President Barack Obama on Tuesday, they would do well to discuss two pressing human rights issues on which they have played central – but opposite – roles: Internet freedom and Venezuela. 

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff during the first plenary session of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama April 11, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

On Internet freedom, Rousseff has helped spur a global debate on digital security and privacy. After Edward Snowden revealed that the US had spied on her, she took the issue to the United Nations General Assembly. There she decried the idea that one country’s security could be guaranteed by violating the fundamental rights of another country’s citizens, and rallied states in two key resolutions on the right to privacy in the digital age. These paved the way to establishing a mandate for the international right to privacy at the UN Human Rights Council.

In contrast, Obama has done very little to address the privacy concerns of people outside the US or dismantle the mass surveillance apparatus that Snowden revealed. The administration issued a directive last year imposing new limits on how personal data can be used, and supported the recently enacted USA Freedom Act, which imposes long-overdue limits on domestic phone record collection and new measures to increase transparency and oversight of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance.

Yet these measures are only very modest steps toward ending the mass surveillance programs that unnecessarily and disproportionately intrude on the privacy of millions of people worldwide. Meanwhile, the administration insists on prosecuting Snowden, rather than recognizing him as a whistleblower who deserves protection.

On Venezuela, it is Obama, not Rousseff, who has stood up for human rights. Since the beginning of last year, the Venezuelan government has carried out widespread abuses against peaceful protesters – including beatings and torture – while arresting and prosecuting political opponents on highly dubious grounds. International human rights monitors and local rights defenders have repeatedly denounced these practices. But Obama has been one of the few leaders in the region to call for an end to these abuses. His administration has backed up this call by imposing targeted sanctions on senior officials implicated in these crimes. 

In contrast, Rousseff has been unwilling to speak out about the human rights situation in Venezuela. When asked, she has repeatedly cited the principle of “non-interference” as grounds to avoid criticizing the Venezuelan government’s actions. However, when it comes to fundamental rights – whether it’s the right to protest on the streets of Venezuela, or the right to privacy on the Internet – it isn’t a matter of governments imposing their own agendas but rather upholding universal values. 

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