While the world grappled this year with what to do about North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, global warming, poverty and disease, it ignored the most pervasive threat to peace and security of all: dictators. One by one, during the year, a string of them died without having faced justice for their crimes - proof that international law, although much touted, is essentially toothless. With the announcement of each death vanished the hopes for justice among those who had been tormented, tortured or had relatives and friends killed. For millions of people, reconciliation for the wrongs of the past is now impossible. There were two exceptions: former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who will be executed within a month; and ex-Liberian leader Charles Taylor, who faces 650 charges before the Special Court for Sierra Leone related to that country's war. In both cases, action came only after the leaders fell out of favour with the US - and they are rare exceptions rather than the rule. The ex-president of the former Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, became the first absolute ruler to cheat justice this year. He died of a heart attack on March 11 in his prison cell in The Hague, before a verdict could be handed down in his war crimes trial. Alfredo Stroessner, Paraguay's dictator for 35 years, died of pneumonia in his adopted homeland of Brazil on August 16. He fled Paraguay after being overthrown in 1989. Between 400 and 3,000 political opponents are estimated to have been killed during his rule. South Africa's president during the country's violent 1980s, P.W. Botha, died in his sleep at his home on October 31, aged 90. Elected by the nation's white minority, he was viewed as a dictator by the black majority, who suffered gross abuses under apartheid. Chile's self-proclaimed leader from 1973 until 1990, Augusto Pinochet, is blamed for the deaths and disappearances of at least 3,000 people and the torture of 30,000 others during his rule. He died of heart failure on December 10, aged 90, with more than 300 human rights and embezzlement charges pending against him. Eight days ago, the president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, died in office of heart disease. During his 21 years at the helm of the Central Asian country, he became one of the world's most authoritarian dictators, brutally crushing all opposition and imposing a series of eccentric decrees. The world stood by as these despots committed their misdeeds. It did little, if anything, to seek atonement after they had left power. Sometimes they were even encouraged: the US backed Pinochet's market reforms to the hilt, while the European Union this year granted Turkmenistan most-favoured-nation trading status - ostensibly because of the nation's large gas reserves. There are sufficient measures under international law to bring dictators to heel. The Geneva Conventions provide adequate muscle to intervene, as do the many other UN agreements that are supposed to protect humanity. There is no mechanism, though, to deal with nations that do not sign or ratify those individual pacts. Nor is specific action set out for dealing with countries that flout the rules they have endorsed. In many cases, wars, poverty, disease and nuclear proliferation are directly attributable to dictators. Yet such tyrants are still openly embraced by UN Security Council members, which claim to have the good of the world at heart. China and Russia do business with North Korea's Kim Jong-il, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Sudan's Omar al-Beshir, Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov. The US deals with Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, and Britain and France with Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. As long as trade and the thirst for oil and gas gets in the way of the rights of the world's people, there seems little chance of dictators falling entirely out of favour and being forced to face trial for their misdeeds. The best hope is the example of 2006: that, by a quirk of nature, they will quickly die out. Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor.