In the time since the end of the Cold War, there have been many years in which advocates of freedom and democracy found endless reasons for gloom and few for hope. This was not one of those years.
January witnessed protests that led to the departure of Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt since 1981, and December brought the death of North Korea's Kim Jong Il, whose country erases any distinction between communism and hell. In between came obituaries for a reclusive resident of Abbottabad, Pakistan, who expired during an unscheduled meeting with U.S. Navy SEALs.
Muslims in the Middle East, which had been markedly resistant to the spread of liberty, were responsible for the year's most momentous human rights development. The "Arab spring" began last December when a young Tunisian produce vendor set himself on fire after being abused by police. His act sparked a mass uprising that on Jan. 14 induced tyrant Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country.
Egyptians took to the streets chanting a slogan borrowed from Tunisia: "The people want the fall of the regime." Soon Mubarak was gone, making way for November elections. But before year's end, crowds returned to Cairo's Tahrir Square demanding that the military relinquish its remaining control.
Not all Arab rulers submitted to demands for change. Libya's Moammar Gadhafi fought for months to suppress an armed revolt assisted by NATO, only to be captured and unceremoniously killed.
Syria's Bashar al-Assad was more successful in his savagery, slaughtering some 5,000 constituents dissatisfied with his rule. The Arab League surprised him and the rest of the world by imposing sanctions.
Osama bin Laden died as he was simultaneously losing the military war with the United States and the political battle for the favor of Muslims the world over. The Economist magazine noted that "the most striking feature of the Arab spring remains the complete failure of violently radical Islam."
After decades of almost universal autocracy, Africa has experienced some 30 democratic transfers of power since 1991. In September, Zambian President Rupiah Banda lost at the polls and calmly stepped down. Nigerians re-elected President Goodluck Jonathan in a contest "largely free of the fraud, ballot-stealing and violence that have plagued elections since the country's return to democracy 12 years ago," according to The New York Times.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to restore calm after a civil war, and then won an election boycotted by the opposition but praised by outside monitors. Laurent Gbagbo, whose forces killed thousands after he refused to accept his electoral defeat in Ivory Coast last year, is in The Hague awaiting trial for crimes against humanity.
The protests in the Arab world prompted a harsh response—in China, whose government, fearful of contagion, "cracked down on dissent to an extent we have not seen in over a decade," according to Human Rights Watch. Artist Ai Weiwei, who helped design the striking "Bird's Nest" stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was detained for three months for his political activism.
After the Burmese government released dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent most of the past two decades in confinement, it offered reforms that persuaded her to run for parliament in the coming elections. The changes also convinced Hillary Clinton to become the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the country since 1955.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who presided over an election widely denounced as fraudulent, suffered the additional embarrassment of seeing his party get less than half the rigged vote.
In the country's biggest demonstrations since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, angry citizens marched in numerous cities demanding a "Russia without Putin" and wearing white ribbons as emblems of protest. The prime minister, showing his trademark flair for empathy and humor, said he thought the ribbons were condoms.
In Nicaragua, incumbent President Daniel Ortega won another term despite a constitutional provision barring him from being re-elected. Leftist President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who once referred to George W. Bush as "the devil," was more charitable to reputed socialist Barack Obama, calling him "a clown" and "an embarrassment."
The real embarrassment is the survival of despots who try to keep their countries frozen in time. But as many of them learned in 2011, spring can arrive without notice.