In 2020, headlines about the U.S. elections and the coronavirus pandemic dominated the news. In an historic year for health and politics, there were still many other stories of significant international consequence.
Here are five important stories from around the globe that marked 2020, and will continue to shape events in 2021 and beyond:
Hong Kong protests
In 2019, Hong Kong’s Security Bureau proposed an amendment that would allow extraditions to mainland China – triggering the biggest wave of protests in the island city since the 2014 “Umbrella Revolution.”
People were concerned that Beijing’s shadowy justice system would pursue political and religious dissidents who, until the laws were enacted, often sought refuge in Hong Kong. Mass protests gripped Hong Kong on a regular basis, often erupting in violent clashes as riot police sought to suppress the demonstrations.
The extradition bill was withdrawn, but after unrest continued to simmer, Beijing moved to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong to tackle subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign influence, vastly expanding the arrest powers of the Hong Kong police.
Dozens of protest leaders and opposition activists subsequently fled the city to live in exile – including Nathan Law, one of the architects of the mass sit-ins and protests dubbed the "Umbrella Revolution" and a key activist and student union leader behind the 2019-2020 protests.
Ahead of the security bill’s implementation, Law told ABC News that when he made the snap decision to flee Hong Kong, he publicly announced that he was severing all ties with the family he was leaving behind, so as not to put them in danger of interrogation or pressure from the government:
“II only had a week or two to think very deeply about my future and how I can better help facilitate the movement," he said. "Because I think having a voice on the international level is crucial. I carried my backpack and small suitcase on the plane and then embarked on my new journey.”
Law now lives in London and continues to advocate for democracy in Hong Kong.
In May, President Donald Trump announced the end of special U.S. treatment for Hong Kong as a response to the security law.
As countries around the world saw temperature records broken, an alarming warning sign was observed in the Arctic.
The Russian town of Verkhoyansk, in northern Siberia, reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest known temperature ever recorded north of the Arctic Circle.
Marina Makarova, the chief meteorologist at Russia’s Roshydromet – a state environmental monitoring service - said that the 2020 winter was the hottest in Siberia since records began 130 years ago.
The extraordinary shift this year also coincided with Arctic sea-ice levels shrinking to a 42 year record – losing around 888,000 square miles of ice in November. The area is comparable to a space three times the size of Texas.
The loss of ice has reportedly changed wildlife behavior and altered plant growth in the seas around the Arctic, and led to reports of unprecedented swarms of mosquitos in Siberia.
The rate of melting permafrost in the Arctic Circle was also blamed for a huge oil spill in June. An estimated 20,000 tons of diesel oil was spilled from a power plant in Norilsk, a fragile Arctic region 1,800 miles northeast of Moscow.
Prosecutors investigating the spillage said the incident caused the concrete foundation under the tank to crack.
Finland's female government
This year marked the beginning of Finland’s historic government headed by the 35-year-old Sanna Marin and her team, led by four other women. Of the five, four are millennials.
Marin’s new government was thrust into the spotlight in December 2019 when all were sworn into office, but 2020 brought unprecedented challenges for the women in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finland was praised for its swift action in the early days of the pandemic. Schools were closed and a nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 16 when there were fewer than 300 infections recorded.
However, the country is now in the grip of a second wave, albeit with fewer deaths than recorded earlier in the year. While Marin enjoyed positive polls for her government’s decisive action earlier in 2020, recent polls by national broadcaster YLE found that a populist party overtook her Social Democrat Party to become Finland’s most popular party.
YLE interpreted Marin’s earlier polling peak results as something of a political outlier, reporting that “the latest poll sees a return to the familiar situation where no one party has a clear advantage.”
After protests erupted in the U.S. following George Floyd's death, an anti-police brutality movement spread across Nigeria sparked by a viral video that allegedly showed Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) officers killing a young man in Delta state.
Officials denounced the video as fake and arrested the man who had made it, which fueled anger.
The SARS force has been accused of extortion, torture, harassment and murder for years according to Amnesty International.
The rights group says it has evidence of at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution committed by SARS officers since 2017.
The #EndSARS movement spread online and was aided by celebrity endorsements by British soccer star Marcus Rashford and Star Wars actor John Boyega.
On Oct. 11, the Nigerian government announced that the SARS force was to be disbanded, and that reforms would be implemented across the wider police force.
The announcement was greeted with elation by protesters, but many also voiced frustration that the measures did not go far enough.
Pangolins in China
Pangolins have often been described as the most trafficked animal on earth, and for years have been listed as critically endangered. Trade in all eight pangolin species has been banned under international law since 2017, although vast quantities of the animals’ scales are smuggled from Africa to Asia – and reports indicate the trade is growing.
However, in February, researchers in Guangzhou, China, suggested that pangolins – alongside other traded wildlife – may have been instrumental in the spread of COVID-19.
On Feb. 7, the South China Agricultural University, which has yet to publish the detailed findings of its study, announced at a press conference that its researchers identified the pangolin as a potential source of COVID-19 on the basis of a genetic comparison of coronaviruses taken from the animals and humans infected in the outbreak, with sequences proving 99% similar.
In June 2020, China removed pangolin scales from an official listing of ingredients approved for use in Chinese medicine. Conservation groups have lauded the move as a milestone for efforts in eradicating trafficking of the animal.