Atrocities Notwithstanding, 2010 Saw Major Progress on Human Rights

12/10/2010 12:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On December 10, the international community will mark the 60th annual Human Rights Day, celebrating the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But how did the world fare this year in the arena of human rights?

On many fronts, the news was dismal, with murder, torture and severe political repression remaining commonplace across the globe. Here at home the Obama Administration continued the previous administration's widely disparaged policies of secret detention and torture, while former President Bush, in a new memoir, shamelessly defended his decision to approve the use of waterboarding.

Somewhat lost amidst the torrent of bad news, however, were a number of landmark developments. Many of these achievements were years in the making, the result of determined advocacy by activists who often go unheralded.

Here, then, is a guide to some of the most encouraging human rights stories of 2010.

Treaty Outlawing Forced Disappearance: After years of work by human rights activists, a landmark treaty aimed at abolishing forced disappearances will take effect. The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted in 2006 by the United Nations General Assembly, will enter into force on December 23 following its ratification by Iraq. Citing the convention, Amnesty International has called on all countries to end disappearances.

Repeal of Argentina's Dirty War Law: Argentina took a major step toward bringing to justice those responsible for its infamous "Dirty War" of the 1970s, repealing laws that protected military officials from prosecution for crimes committed during this period. Hundreds of perpetrators including ex-General Videla and ex-General Menendez are now imprisoned.

Release of Aung San Suu Kyi: This could be a major step toward reform, or just another empty gesture by the brutal military regime in Burma that has reversed itself more than once when it comes to the Nobel Prize-winning dissident. Human rights advocates are hopeful that Kyi's release could lead to an easing of repressive government policies and the eventual restoration of democratic rule.

Arrest Warrant for Sudan President: In July, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced a second arrest warrant for Sudan's president Omar Al-Bashir, charging him with three counts of genocide. Bashir has presided over the genocide in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of civilians have been murdered, raped and driven from their homes.

British Settlement With Guantanamo Detainees: In November, the British government announced that it had reached a settlement to pay compensation to 16 former Guantanamo Bay detainees for the abuses they suffered in U.S. custody. This landmark agreement sent a strong signal that, at least in Great Britain, there will be accountability for the extra-legal measures that flourished at the notorious prison camp.

Cambodian War Crimes Conviction: More than three decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the first conviction was handed down for atrocities committed in one of the 20th Century's worst genocides. Comrade Duch, who ran a prison where thousands were tortured and killed, was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Removal of Nuremberg Clause: The American Psychological Association (APA) finally removed the so-called "Nuremberg Defense" from its code of conduct. This clause, which was added in 2002 at the height of the Bush administration's influence, allowed mental health professionals to dispense with professional ethics when they conflicted with "law, regulations, and other governing legal authority."

Election of Torture Victim as Brazilian President: In October, Dilma Rousseff completed her astounding journey from fugitive guerrilla to the highest office in the land, becoming president of Brazil. After fighting against the country's military dictatorship in the late 1960s, Rouseff was arrested and tortured, but with the return of democratic rule in the 1980s, she began her political ascent.

Juan Mendez Appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Torture
: Mendez took on this position with the United Nations in November. Having been detained and tortured in Argentina himself for over a year during the 1970s dictatorship, he has a personal understanding of and sensitivity toward human rights abuses.

US Supreme Court Landmark Ruling Against Human Rights Abuses: For the first time, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Samantar v. Yousuf that foreign government officials, who commit atrocities and then avail themselves of the benefits of living in the U.S., are not immune for torture, rape and other war crimes.