Ten World Figures Who Died in 2019
from The Water's Edge

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2019

Ten people who passed away this year who shaped world affairs for better or worse.
Sadako Ogata at a news conference in Geneva in 1999. REUTERS.
Sadako Ogata at a news conference in Geneva in 1999. REUTERS.

I wrote yesterday about ten Americans who died in 2019 who shaped U.S. foreign policy during their lifetimes. But Americans are not the only ones who influence world affairs. Below are ten world figures who died this year. Each made a mark on history. Some were heroes; some were villains. And for some, which they were is your call to make.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (b.1971) was an Islamic State leader who declared a caliphate in northeastern Syria and western Iraq. Born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri—al-Baghdadi was his nom de guerre—he grew up in Samarra, Iraq, to a conservative family that claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammed. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and was working on his PhD in Islamic law when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. He joined a local resistance movement, and in 2004, he was arrested as an insurgent. Released after eleven months, al-Baghdadi joined the group that would eventually become the Islamic State. He became its head in 2010 after U.S. forces killed the group’s previous two leaders. The group seized territory in northeastern Syria in the wake of the Syrian civil war, and in 2014, roared into Iraq, at one point controlling a third of the country. That June, al-Baghdadi announced a new caliphate from the minbar of one of Mosul’s oldest mosques. The savagery of the Islamic State’s rule helped galvanize its opponents. In March 2017, its last stronghold fell. In October, al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest as U.S. Special Forces stormed his hideout in northwestern Syria.

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Heads of State and Government


Jacques Chirac (b. 1932) was a two-term president of France who championed European unity and opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Chirac was raised in an upscale neighborhood in Paris. He initially studied to become a merchant marine, but his father pushed him to attend Sciences Po. One summer he took classes at Harvard University and worked as a dishwasher at a local Howard Johnson’s. After graduating from Sciences Po, Chirac attended the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration. He did a stint in the French army and fought in Algeria. He then took a government job, where he caught the eye of Georges Pompidou. In 1972, then-President Pompidou appointed Chirac minister of agriculture. After Pompidou died suddenly in office, his successor, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, made Chirac prime minister. Chirac held the position again in the mid-1980s under President Francois Mitterrand. Chirac was elected mayor of Paris in 1977 and held the post until 1995, when he was elected president. He was an ardent proponent of the European Union, saying he longed “not for a United States of Europe, but for a United Europe of States.” In 2011, Chirac was convicted of embezzlement and misuse of government funds while mayor.

B.J. Habibie (b.1939) led Indonesia’s 1998 transition to a democracy. Born in Parepare on the island of Sulawesi as the fourth of eight children, Habibie graduated from the Bandung Institute of Technology and then earned a doctorate from Germany’s Aachen Institute of Technology. He was working in Germany in 1974 when Suharto, Indonesia’s military dictator, persuaded him to bring his scientific know-how back home. Four years later, Suharto named Habibie minister of research and technology. In 1998, Suharto appointed him to a more important post—vice president. The country was in the midst of Asian financial crisis and opposition to Suharto’s rule was rising. After just two months on the job, Habibie became president when Suharto resigned. The scientist-turned-politician served as president for just seventeen months, but his impact was profound. He called free elections, released political prisoners, worked to diminish military’s influence over political life, and allowed freedom of the press. He also agreed to a UN-supervised referendum on self-determination for Portugal’s former colony, East Timor, which Indonesia had occupied for a quarter century. The move alienated many Indonesians. It was a major reason why Habibie withdrew from the country’s 1999 presidential elections, ending his term in office less than eighteen months after it started.

Michael Howard (b. 1922) was a British combat veteran who became one of the greatest military historians of his generation. Born into an upper middle-class family with a Quaker father and a Jewish mother, Howard grew up in London. He studied history at Oxford University, and after graduating in 1942, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards. He was awarded the Military Cross for leading a bayonet charge against a German machine gun nest in Italy. After the war, Howard returned to Oxford and earned his doctoral degree. He took a position at King’s College London, where he helped establish the Department of War Studies. He also established the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In 1968, he again returned to Oxford. He remained there for two decades before taking up his final academic position at Yale University. Howard’s most famous work, The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, assessed the societal forces that drove the war and reflected the approach he took to his studies. “The history of war,” he wrote in his memoir, “was more than the operational history of armed forces. It was the study of entire societies.” Howard was knighted in 1986.

Kim Bok-dong (b. 1926) fought to bring attention to how she and thousands of other Korean women were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. Kim was born at a time when Korea, which had not yet been divided, was a colony of Japan. At age fourteen, Japanese officials conscripted her to work in what she was told would be a garment factory. She was instead pressed into life as sex slave—or a “comfort woman” as euphemism had it—at Japanese military bases across East Asia. Kim said later she was treated like a “beast” and that “on weekdays [she] had to take 15 soldiers a day…on Saturdays and Sundays it was more like 50.” After the war ended, Kim kept quiet about her abuse out of shame. That changed in the early 1990s when another sex slave, Kim Hak-sun, told her story. Kim Bok-dong soon came forward to join her. They and other so-called comfort women demanded an apology from the Japanese government as well as reparations. Their campaign was initially shunned by most South Koreans, including even members of their own families. Today, it is a major issue in Japanese-South Korean relations.

Li Peng (b. 1928) was a former Chinese premier who was nicknamed the “Butcher of Beijing” for his role in suppressing the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Li was born in Shanghai, China. His father was a revolutionary executed by the Nationalists early in the Chinese civil war. Future Chinese premier Zhou Enlai became Li’s mentor. In 1948, Li was sent to study in Moscow, where he remained for seven years. After returning to China, he managed hydroelectric plants. He survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution unscathed, possibly because of Zhou’s protection. After Deng Xiaoping became China’s leader in 1978, Li rose quickly through the Communist Party’s ranks. By 1985, he was a member of the Politburo. Two years later he was named prime minister. In that position, he pushed for construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project. When the Tiananmen Square protests erupted in 1989, Li became the face of the government crackdown when he announced the imposition of martial law. He insisted, however, that Deng had made the decision to crush the protests. Whatever Li’s complicity, he was passed over for General Secretary of the Communist Party, reportedly because his association with Tiananmen Square made him unacceptable to Chinese and foreigners alike.

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Heads of State and Government


Mohamed Morsi (b. 1951) was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who became Egypt’s first and so far only president elected in a free vote. Morsi was born and raised in Sharqiya, a town in the Nile Delta. He was a good student who eventually earned a PhD in material science from the University of Southern California. He returned to teach at Zagazig University near his home town. Morsi was unknown to most Egyptians when he became the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate in the presidential election that followed Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in early 2011. Despite the fact that the Brotherhood had been outlawed in Egypt for much of its history, Morsi was elected president in June 2012. He lasted a little more than a year in office. In July 2013, his defense minister, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, led a coup and began suppressing the Brotherhood. He also had Morsi charged with an array of crimes, including espionage and terrorism. In 2015, Morsi was convicted and sentenced to death, a sentence that was later overturned. At the time of his death, Morsi was being retried for his supposed crimes. His critics blamed his death on the inadequate medical care he received during his imprisonment.

Robert Mugabe (b.1924) led the fight to overthrow white-ruled Rhodesia and then, through his increasingly despotic rule, drove the new country of Zimbabwe into destitution. Mugabe was born in what was then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. He excelled at academics and in the early 1950s earned a scholarship to study in South Africa. He taught in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Ghana before returning home. He quickly became involved in revolutionary politics, which led to his arrest and imprisonment for eleven years. Upon his release in 1975, he fled to Mozambique where he took up arms against the white-ruled government of a now independent Rhodesia. By 1980, that government had admitted defeat. Mugabe won a decisive majority in the first free elections held in what was now Zimbabwe. He solidified his hold on power, first as prime minister and after 1987 as president. Despite pledging to unite the country, he used his office to crush his political opponents and singled out Zimbabwe’s small LGBTQ+ community for persecution. As the years passed, his economic policies became increasingly destructive; Zimbabwe’s life expectancy dropped to the shortest in the world. In 2017, Mugabe was removed from office in a bloodless coup.

Yasuhiro Nakasone (b. 1918) championed a more assertive foreign policy and closer military ties to the United States as Japan’s prime minister in the 1980s. Nakasone was born and raised just north of Tokyo. A good student, he graduated from what is now Tokyo University in 1938. He eventually joined the Japanese Navy, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant commander. Nakasone turned to politics after WWII, winning a seat in Parliament in 1947. He had campaigned by criticizing the U.S. occupation of Japan and flying a Japanese flag in violation of Occupation rules. Nakasone rose through the ranks of the Liberal Democratic Party. In 1982, he was named prime minister, a post he held for five years. His tenure was marked by several firsts, including becoming the first Japanese prime minister to visit South Korea and the first to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, which is viewed elsewhere in Asia as a symbol of Japanese militarism, in his official capacity. Despite significant trade tensions with the United States, Nakasone also developed a close friendship with President Ronald Reagan. Nakasone left Parliament in 2003, but his nationalist vision inspired subsequent Japanese politicians, including current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Sadako Ogata (b. 1927) was the first woman to lead the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Ogata was born in Tokyo to a distinguished political family. The daughter of a diplomat, she lived all over the globe. She graduated from the University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo, where she earned a Rotary Foundation fellowship to pursue a master’s degree at Georgetown University. She later earned a PhD in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. At a time when few Japanese women worked at all, Ogata pursued both an academic and diplomatic career. She first taught at Tokyo’s Sophia University. In 1968, she was appointed to the Japanese delegation to the UN General Assembly. She held a variety of positions at the Japanese mission over the next dozen years. In 1991, she was appointed head of UNHCR. Her tenure coincided with a surge in conflicts, including ones in Iraq, East Timor, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia, that created a surge in refugees. She pushed UNHCR to address the plight not just of people pushed across crossed borders by conflict, but also those who were displaced within their own countries. After stepping down from UNHCR in 2001, Ogata became head of the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Other significant world figures who died in 2019 included:

Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was the longtime president of Tunisia who was ousted in 2011 during the protests that triggered the Arab Spring. Yukiya Amano was a Japanese diplomat and the former head of the International Atomic Energy AssociationMoshe Arens served as Israel’s defense minister and ambassador to the United States. Michel Bacos was a French pilot who in 1976 refused to abandon his Jewish passengers after their plane was hijacked and diverted to Entebbe, Uganda. Vladimir Bukovsky was a Soviet dissident who exposed how Soviet authorities abused political dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. Dumiso Dabengwa was a Soviet-trained insurgent leader in Zimbabwe’s liberation war. Diogo Freitas do Amaral helped to bring democracy to Portugal and served as president of the United Nations General Assembly in 1995. Béji Caïd Essebsi was the first popularly elected president of Tunisia. Rafi Eitan was an Israeli spymaster who led the team that captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. Dawda Jawara led Gambia to independence from the United Kingdom. Bob Hawke was the former prime minister of Australia. Agnes Heller was a Hungarian philosopher and dissident who criticized both the country’s communist regime and its current prime minister Viktor Orban.

Joan Jones fought for racial justice in Nova Scotia. Dumisani Kumalo was a South African activist who traveled the United States in the 1980s urging Americans to stop doing business with South Africa. Alexei Leonov, was a Russian cosmonaut who in 1965 became first person to walk in space. Lyra McKee was a twenty-nine-year-old Northern Ireland journalist who was shot and killed while covering unrest in Londonderry. Marcelle Ninio was an Israeli spy who was imprisoned in Egypt for her involvement in a 1954 bombing plot. Nuon Chea was a senior member of the Khmer Rouge who was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. Jan Ruff-O’Herne was the first European woman to publicly tell her story of being forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military. Shuping Wang was a Chinese doctor who exposed China’s rural AIDS crisis. Su Beng was called the “father of Taiwan independence” for his efforts to create an independent Taiwan. Azam Taleghani was a women’s rights activist who fought repeatedly, though unsuccessfully, to be allowed to run for the presidency in Iran. Tejshree Thapa was a human rights lawyer who exposed mass rapes in the Balkans and South Asia. H. Johannes Witteveen headed the IMF from 1973 to 1978.

Margaret Gach, Caroline Kantis, and Anna Shortridge contributed to the preparation of this post

Other posts in this series:

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2023

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2022

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2021

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2020

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2018

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2017

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2016

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2015​​​​

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2014

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2013

Remembering Ten World Figures Who Died in 2012

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