Wanted: a new world champion

How can the US condemn torture in Argentina, political murders in Russia and censorship in North Kor

Despite various bright moments in the past year, the cause of human rights continued to be undercut by the very countries that should be leading the way. It is difficult for a human-rights violator to be an effective advocate for human rights and human decency.

Bringing the perpetrators of international crimes to justice is an important step along the path towards civilisation. By resisting any international trial of US personnel, no matter what the crime, and by promoting what the British former law lord Lord Steyn described as "kangaroo courts" in Guantanamo Bay, the Bush administration continues to act as a dead weight in this area.

None the less, 2006 has brought some notable milestones. Charles Taylor is the former Liberian president charged with ordering hundreds of rapes that started on Valentine's Day 1998, continuing until the end of June. His trial was moved from Sierra Leone to The Hague, with Britain promising a prison cell if he is convicted. In November, the case began against Momcilo Mandic, justice minister in the Bosnian-Serb government of Radovan Karadzic. Wire-tap evidence will be used to prove his role in guards' torture of inmates in three prisons.

The prosecution of war crimes has thoroughly infiltrated domestic law as well. The French are seeking to prosecute President Paul Kagame of Rwanda for the 1994 killing of the then Rwandan president, Juvénal Habyarimana, when his plane was shot down. The murder sparked violence that led to 800,000 deaths; the French claim jurisdiction because the plane's crew was from France. Prosecutors have authorised arrest warrants for nine senior Rwandan officials. Similarly, in November, Canada ordered the trial of Désiré Munyaneza for his alleged participation in the genocide.

Meanwhile, the pardons issued in favour of various Argentinian junta leaders were ruled unconstitutional by a federal court in Buenos Aires, leaving them open to prosecution for various crimes, including kidnapping up to 30,000 people who "disappeared" during the late 1970s. And Spain ordered the arrest of the former Argentinian police officer Ricardo Taddei for the torture and murder of 160 left-wing "dissidents" at secret detention centres.

As prosecutions of officials become more frequent, there are signs that the punishment of less exalted criminals is becoming more humane. In April, the president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, commuted the sentences of all 1,230 prisoners on death row to life imprisonment. In Vietnam, a proposal would end executions for several non-violent offences. That said, Le Manh Luong, a British national, was sentenced to death in Vietnam just two weeks ago, on 25 November. In the same month, another British citizen on death row, Mirza Tahir Hussain, was freed by President Pervez Musharraf after 18 years in prison, his liberation due largely to the personal intervention of Prince Charles, then on a state visit to Pakistan.

The trend away from the death penalty has reached the US, where, this past year, the number of such sentences imposed has been well under half the figure ten years ago.

Free speech, however, is a human right that is all too often ignored. The worldwide record has not been good in 2006. President George Bush protested that his suggestion to Tony Blair that they should bomb al-Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar was a "joke". Most people failed to see the humour, including Sami al-Hajj, a journalist for al-Jazeera, who on 15 December celebrated his fifth year in US custody at Guantanamo Bay. In all that time, no charges have been laid against him.

The Bush administration has been setting a bad example to some unsavoury regimes. According to Reporters Without Borders, North Korea, one of the members of the "axis of evil", is bottom of the press freedom league table. Turkmenistan comes a close second: each news bulletin there begins with a pledge that the broadcaster's tongue will shrivel if he slanders the country, the flag, or the president. Such discord is unlikely, as President Saparmurat Niyazov personally appoints journalists.

Various close allies of the west are not doing much better. The 59th World Newspaper Congress was held in Moscow in June. Four months later, the leading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a powerful critic of President Vladimir Putin's Chechen policy, was murdered. Her killers have not yet been identified, despite video footage of them entering her apartment building. The following month, there was much less media coverage of a five-year sentence for Boris Stomakhin on a charge of "inciting ethnic hatred" with his coverage of the Chechen conflict. His crime was to describe the Russian presence in Chechnya as an "occupation" and to compare Putin with Saddam Hussein.

It has also been a dangerous year to be a journalist in the Philippines, where at least eight people working to expose corruption have been killed. Although 60 journalists have been murdered there in the past ten years, a trial of three men in October for the murder of the journalist Marlene Esperat led to only the fourth conviction. Meanwhile, José Miguel Arroyo, the husband of the president, has brought 43 separate actions against journalists for libel; they have now clubbed together in a class action to sue him for seeking to "chill the freedom of the press".

But there have also been positive developments on free speech, particularly where the European Union has brought pressure to bear on new members, and countries aspiring to membership. The most famous example came in October when the EU harshly condemned the prosecution of the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, for "denigrating Turkishness" by describing the genocide of Armenians during the Great War.

The prospect of entry into the EU also encouraged free speech in Bulgaria, where Georgi Koritarov, a respected journalist, admitted to acting as a spy during the country's communist era and apologised for his actions on television. His name had been officially released by the interior minister as part of a Freedom of Information action. FOI has become big news in Bulgaria, where the ministry of agriculture and forestry was given a sardonic "Golden Padlock" award for refusing to answer requests for information about corrupt sales of coastal property to private individuals - including a growing number of UK citizens. Romania faces similar challenges in joining the EU, and has set up an "Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes".

Meanwhile, the struggle against discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation has oscillated this year. Much is made in the western media of the alleged chauvinism of Islam; yet, on the other side of that coin, the first 50 women were appointed as state religious preachers in Morocco in May, in a government drive to promote a more tolerant version of Islam. Four months earlier, in Sudan, two female judges were elected to the new African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights.

Meanwhile, as the US Supreme Court debates whether to roll back the constitutional right to abortion, the trend towards criminalising all abortions in central America continues, with the Nicaraguan government passing restrictive legislation in October. The new law penalises abortion even when it is carried out to save the pregnant woman's life, or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

Gay rights suffered a similar setback in Uganda, where a conviction for sodomy carries the penalty of life imprisonment. In September, a local tabloid began to publish the names of alleged homosexuals in a development that could provoke the government to crack down.

Sadly, the focus of human rights to date has by necessity been on the prevention of oppression. Yet we must not forget the words of the US Declaration of Independence, which champions "the pursuit of happiness". Although most people in Britain probably could not find Bhutan on a map, the Himalayan country has made its priority the "gross national happiness", rather than the conventional gross national product.

In 2007, politicians, the media and advocates alike would do well to remember that human happiness is the most significant right of all, a view recognised in Bhutan, if not in Britain.

Clive Stafford Smith is the legal director of Reprieve, a UK charity fighting for the lives of people facing the death penalty and other human-rights violations. He writes this column monthly. Contact Reprieve at PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640. www.reprieve.org.uk.