With spectacular irony, fundamental rights and freedoms around the world were violated over the decade almost as rapidly as new mechanisms to protect them were being assembled. In the U.K., less than a year after New Labour’s Human Rights Act promised to protect civil liberties in 2000, new counterterrorism laws began eroding them. Indefinite detention without trial, control orders, asset-freezing and secret court hearings became part of a new legal order — a 2004 House of Lords judgment declared, “the real threat to the life of the nation... comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.”

Military invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan made the problem global, with questions about the Iraq war’s legality soon overshadowed. Photos of Lynndie England and other U.S. military personnel torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 2004 took public opinion to a new low; British forces, too, became embroiled in allegations of mistreatment. Osama bin Laden remained elusive, but hundreds of other terrorist suspects did not. As “extraordinary rendition” entered the popular vocabulary, the U.S. stood accused of kidnapping men as young as 15 and rendering them to countries where interrogation techniques ranged from extracting fingernails to electrocution.

The U.S. developed its own definition of torture and began transporting captives to ghost prisons and a little-known military base in Cuba. Guantanamo Bay came to symbolise the injustice of the Bush era as hundreds were detained without prisoner-of-war or civilian protection. Undoing the ensuing damage proved harder than many imagined — Obama’s pledge to restore the rule of law and close Guantanamo was frustrated by the question of what to do with its inmates. In Britain, the return of Binyam Mohamed this year brought new insight into conditions at the camp and evidence of British complicity in torture.

Elections in Iraq in 2005 and Afghanistan in 2009 revealed that steps towards democracy would be taken incrementally, as elsewhere the struggle for democracy pursued a bloody path. The sight of crimson-clad monks bleeding on the streets among thousands of pro-democracy protesters in Burma’s “saffron revolution” in 2007 shocked the world. In Africa, enduring areas of conflict and totalitarian rule obscured progress elsewhere. Ghana, Mozambique and Rwanda continued to achieve peaceful transitions of power and growth, while the prospect of oil across West Africa brought cautious hope.

In 2006, the arrest of former Liberian president Charles Taylor offered unprecedented accountability, and his ongoing trial for alleged war crimes was followed by the first attempt to bring to trial an incumbent head of state, as the international criminal court issued a warrant for Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir.

Europe remained home to numerous violations of international human rights, not least in freedom of expression, with Russia and Turkey accused of an astonishing number of repressive acts. The European Court of Human Rights regressed in its attitude towards balancing the rights of free speech and privacy, while in the U.K. newspapers argued they were being crippled by exponential libel costs and celebrities invoking privacy rights. Privacy was less precious for non-celebrities as the growth in DNA databases continued apace, with the U.K. retaining DNA from more people than any other country — other states looked on as British plans suffered a setback in 2008 when a legal challenge ruled that this violated fundamental rights. Nor did other aspects of Britain’s agenda escape the spotlight, as the uniquely British obsessions with CCTV and personal liberty seemed increasingly incompatible.

The decade ends as it began, with new aspirations to safeguard people and values conflicting with failures in implementing them. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

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