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I wrote yesterday about ten Americans who died in 2020 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.
Saeb Erekat (b. 1955) was a lead Palestinian negotiator in talks with Israel. Raised in Jericho in the West Bank, Erekat studied in the United States and England and began his career teaching international relations at a West Bank university. He was devoted to negotiating a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders “with East Jerusalem as its capital, alongside an Israeli state.” Erekat served as the deputy head of the Palestinian delegation during the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. He helped negotiate several other agreements over the next decade, including the Oslo II Accord, that gave Palestinians more authority in parts of the West Bank and Gaza. He struggled to keep negotiations alive after the collapse of the Oslo Accords, which he had thought would be a “turning point in our history.” Erekat was elected to represent Jericho in the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996, becoming a close advisor to Yasser Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas. He repeatedly resigned his posts over the years to make political points. In 2015, Abbas appointed Erekat secretary-general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Some Palestinians saw Erekat as too willing to make concessions; some Israelis saw him as too stubborn. He denounced President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan and the Abraham Accords.
Priscilla Jana (b. 1943) was a South African lawyer who represented Nelson Mandela. Jana was born in Westville, South Africa, to Indian immigrants. She joined the anti-apartheid movement in 1971 after meeting Steve Biko, the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement. She earned her law degree in 1974, the same year she joined an underground cell of the African National Congress (ANC). Jana first met Mandela in 1977. She became his attorney and also represented many of his fellow political prisoners on Robben Island. She used her prison access to pass coded messages between the prisoners and the ANC. Jana’s biggest cases included those of Solomon Mahlangu, who was executed for the murder of two white people in 1979, and the inquest into the murder of Steve Biko. In 1979, Jana opened her own law firm dedicated to protecting civil rights. The government soon banned her from practicing law for five years. Throughout the 1980s, government agents harassed her as she pursued her activist work. She was a member of South Africa’s first democratically-elected post-apartheid parliament from 1994 to 1999 and then a diplomat, serving as South Africa’s ambassador to the Netherlands and Ireland. In 2017, she became the deputy chairwoman of the South African Human Rights Commission.
John le Carré (b. 1931) was a prolific British spy novelist whose plots highlighted the moral ambiguities of the Cold War. Le Carré was born in Dorset, England, as David John Moore Cornwell. He was raised by his father, a con artist, and sent to various boarding schools before attending the University of Bern, where he was recruited by British intelligence. Le Carré worked for Her Majesty’s Government for sixteen years. His first novel, Call for the Dead, was published in 1961. It introduced readers to the disillusioned spy George Smiley. His breakout novel was his 1963 The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It sold so well that le Carré quit his intelligence work and began writing full time. He continually explored the dark underbelly of espionage, highlighting the raw ambition, treachery, and bureaucratic imperatives that shaped intelligence work. Many of his novels were turned into award-winning TV shows and films, including The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979 and 2011), and The Constant Gardener (2005). Le Carré shunned public attention, and became a sharp critic of British and U.S. foreign policy. His last book, Agent Running in the Field, was published in October 2019.
Lee Teng-hui (b. 1923) was Taiwan’s first popularly-elected president. Born in the Taiwanese village of Sanzhi when Japan still ruled the island, Lee served in the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II. After the war, he returned to a Taiwan controlled by Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) and briefly joined the Communist Party. He studied agricultural economics in the United States and taught in Taiwan before joining the KMT in 1971—later saying that “the safest place is the most dangerous place.” Lee rose through the KMT’s political ranks and in 1984 he was named vice president. When the incumbent died four years later, he became the first Taiwanese president to have been born on the island. He gradually eased the KMT’s restrictions on political and social freedoms. In 1996, Lee was elected president in Taiwan’s first popular presidential elections. He opened a dialogue with China, though he insisted on Taiwanese sovereignty. He stepped down as president in 2000, obeying the term limits he had pushed for. In 2013, he was tried and acquitted of embezzling public funds. In 2018, Lee came out of retirement to cofound a new political party that unsuccessfully called for a referendum to change the country’s name from Republic of China to Taiwan.
Hosni Mubarak (b. 1928) served as Egypt’s president for thirty years before being ousted during the Arab Spring. Mubarak was born in the Nile Delta and attended the Egyptian military academy, eventually becoming a pilot. In 1972, he was appointed deputy war minister and commander of the air force. He became famous for heading up Egypt’s air campaign in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Anwar Sadat named him vice president in 1975. He became president in 1981 after Sadat’s assassination. Mubarak ruled Egypt with an iron fist, cracking down on freedom of speech and assembly to silence opponents. He called for peace between Arab countries and Israel, and helped to negotiate agreements with Israel and the PLO in the 1990s. He collaborated with the United States in its “global war on terror” after the September 11 attacks, but relations with Washington subsequently cooled over Egypt’s human rights abuses. Mubarak failed to improve Egypt’s suffering economy, which helped set the stage for the Arab Spring protests that forced his resignation on February 11, 2011. In 2012, he was sentenced to life in jail for the deaths of nearly nine hundred protestors during the demonstrations that unseated him. He was released from prison in 2017.
Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (b. 1920) was a Peruvian diplomat who brokered several significant peace agreements during his two terms as UN secretary-general. Born and raised in Lima, Pérez de Cuéllar joined Peru’s diplomatic service in 1944. His first posting was Paris, and he attended the first UN General Assembly in London in 1946. His subsequent postings took him across Europe and Latin America. In the 1970s, he worked at UN headquarters supporting the secretary-general. In 1981, he was the Security Council’s compromise candidate to become the UN’s first and, so far, only Latin American secretary-general. He was known for his careful diplomatic style, noting when he accepted the job that “if I want to be effective, I have to be discreet.” Over his decade in the office, he helped negotiate peace deals in Cambodia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Namibia, as well as the release of U.S. hostages from Lebanon. During his second term, he helped broker an end to the Iran-Iraq war while recovering from quadruple-bypass heart surgery. In 1992, he returned to Peru, where he launched an unsuccessful bid for president. He served as prime minister from 2000 to 2001. He closed his diplomatic career where it began, Paris, this time as Peru’s ambassador to France.
Jerry Rawlings (b. 1947) was the former president of Ghana who led two successful military coups and then oversaw the country’s democratic transition. Born in Accra, Rawlings entered the military and rose to the rank of flight lieutenant. Frustrated by Ghana’s deep economic and social problems, he launched his first coup attempt in May 1979. It failed and he was sentenced to death. He was quickly freed by fellow officers, however, and succeeded in overthrowing the government on June 4. He had leading Ghanaian officials executed and people suspected of corruption brutally punished. Rawlings returned power to a civilian government that September. It grossly mismanaged the economy, though, and on December 31, 1981, Rawlings seized power for a second time. He initially pursued socialist economic policies. Within two years, however, he switched to more conventional free-market approaches. In the early 1990s, Rawlings pivoted similarly in the political sphere, gradually ending authoritarian rule and allowing political parties to form. He won election as president in 1992 and was reelected four years later. He stepped down as president in 2001 but remained active in politics and diplomacy. Rawlings’s mix of authoritarian and democratic rule meant that he left a “complicated legacy.”
Qasem Soleimani (b. 1957) was the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who orchestrated attacks that killed hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq. The son of a farmer, Soleimani joined the Revolutionary Guard in his early twenties. He saw considerable frontline action during the brutal Iran-Iraq war, steadily rising through the ranks. In 1998, he became the head of the Quds Force, the elite military unit that oversees Iran’s often covert extraterritorial operations. One of his first operations was helping plan Hezbollah’s attacks on Israeli troops occupying southern Lebanon. He replicated this role as “shadow commander” of militias and terrorists throughout the Middle East, most notably in Gaza, Iraq, and Syria. He was close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who described him as a "living martyr of the revolution." Soleimani was killed by a U.S. drone strike on January 3, 2020, shortly after he landed at Baghdad International Airport in a move the Donald J. Trump administration said was necessary to head off an imminent attack on U.S. forces in Iraq. Soleimani’s death was widely mourned in Iran, which launched missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq days in retaliation and issued arrest warrants for Trump and other administration officials.
Thich Quang Do (b. 1928) was a Buddhist monk who campaigned for religious and political freedom in Vietnam. He was born in the country’s northern Thai Binh province as Dang Phuc Tue. He became a monk when he was fourteen, taking on the name the world would come to know him by. Three years later, he saw a communist revolutionary tribunal execute his Buddhist master and vowed “to do all that I could to combat fanaticism and intolerance.” In the 1950s, he taught in India and Sri Lanka before returning to South Vietnam to become a leader in the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). He was arrested and tortured in 1963 for protesting the anti-Buddhist policies of Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem. With the communist victory in 1975, the UBCV was outlawed and Thich Quang Do was arrested for organizing antigovernment protests. He was repeatedly detained over the next four decades as he refused to join the state-sanctioned Buddhist church and continued to call for religious and political freedom. While under house arrest in 2008, Thich Quang Do was named the fifth supreme patriarch of the UBCV. He was finally released from house arrest in 2018, though the Vietnamese government kept him under close watch until his death.
Betty Williams (b. 1943) shared the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for leading protests that demanded an end to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Williams was born to a Protestant father and Catholic mother in Belfast. In August 1976, she saw a fatally wounded Irish Republican Army gunman fleeing British soldiers swerve his car onto a sidewalk, killing three children and injuring their mother. Outraged, Williams and the dead children’s aunt, Mairead Corrigan, organized a 10,000-strong march against the violence gripping Northern Ireland. With the journalist Ciaran McKeown, they founded what became Peace People. It drew tens of thousands to weekly rallies and championed an array of confidence-building measures between Catholics and Protestants. Williams and Corrigan were awarded the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for their work. Williams’s decision not to give all her prize money to Peace People aggravated existing divisions within the group. Meanwhile, the progress that had been made in building trust across sectarian lines had largely vanished by the end of the decade. In 1980, Williams quit Peace People and moved to the United States. She finally returned to Belfast in 2004. She repaired her relationship with Corrigan, and together with four fellow Nobel laureates, they cofounded the Nobel Women’s Initiative.
Other significant world figures who died in 2020 included: Fazle Abed founded Building Resources Across Communities, a leading international relief agency. Hawa Abdi was a doctor and human rights activist who aided thousands of Somalis during Somalia’s prolonged civil war and unrest. Swami Agnivesh was a Hindu monk who campaigned against child labor and indentured servitude in India. George Bizos was an anti-apartheid lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela in the 1960s. George Blake was a British double agent imprisoned for his betrayal who escaped a British prison after five years and fled to Moscow. Jeanette Carlson was an anti-apartheid activist who was deported from South Africa for her activism and kept her vow never to return to her homeland. Robert Fisk was a British war correspondent who covered conflicts in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Northern Ireland. Manolis Glezos and a friend tore down a Nazi flag flying over the Acropolis under the cover of darkness and provided a rallying cry for Greece’s resistance movement during World War II. Nyameka Goniwe was an anti-apartheid activist who fought unsuccessfully for her husband’s killers to be brought to justice. John Houghton led a UN panel that was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for highlighting the threat posed by climate change.
John Hume was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Baba Sheikh Khurto Hajji Ismail was the spiritual leader of the Yazidi community. Kaing Guek Eav was a former schoolteacher who became an infamous prison camp commandant and killer known as “Duch” when the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia. Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa was the former prime minister of Bahrain and the world’s longest-serving prime minister. Momcilo Krajisnik was a former speaker of the Bosnian Serb Parliament who was convicted of crimes against humanity for his actions in the Bosnian war. Vera Lynn was a British singer who inspired British troops during WWII. Seamus Mallon was one of the architects of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Ciaran McKeown was a journalist who joined with Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams to found a grass-roots movement that sought to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Benjamin Mkapa was a former president of Tanzania. Lina Ben Mhenni was a Tunisian blogger who publicized police violence against protesters in Tunisia’s 2010−11 uprising that gave birth to the Arab Spring.
Daniel Arap Moi was a former president of Kenya. Pranab Mukherjee was a former president of India. Yuri Orlov was a leading Soviet physicist who was sentenced to a Siberian gulag for his dissident activities and went on to found the Moscow Helsinki Group. Qaboos Bin Said ruled as the sultan of Oman for fifty years. Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah ruled as the emir of Kuwait for a dozen years. Konrad Steffen was a researcher who warned of climate change’s impact on Greenland’s ice sheet. Amadou Toumani Toure was the second democratically elected president of Mali. Moussa Traore ruled Mali for twenty-two years before being overthrown in a coup. Shigeru Yokota advocated for the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea. Jose Zalaquett was a Chilean lawyer who defended human rights during the rule of General Augusto Pinochet.
Margaret Gach, Aliya Medetbekova, Noah Mulligan, Anna Shortridge, and Christina Wehrmann assisted in the preparation of this post.
Other posts in this series: