October 11, 2008

Nobel Peace Prize for ‘Stubborn’ Finn

By Peter Popham

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Martti Ahtisaari, the Finnish diplomat who has successfully banged heads together to end many conflicts from southern Africa to Indonesia to the Balkans.

The former Finnish president credits his ability for solving ancient and bitter disputes to his childhood wanderings as a victim of the Second World War. "I was born in the city of Viipuri, then still part of Finland," Mr Ahtisaari, 71, said recently. "We lost Viipuri when the Soviet Union attacked my country. Along with 400,000 Karelians I became an eternally displaced person in the rest of Finland. With my mother, I moved from one household to another. This experience, which millions of people around the world have gone through, provided me with sensitivity, which explains my desire to advance peace and thus help others who have gone through similar experiences."

The Norwegian Nobel Committee said it was giving Mr Ahtisaari the prize "for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts. These efforts have contributed to a more peaceful world and to 'fraternity between nations' in Alfred Nobel's spirit."

The committee chairman, Ole Danbolt Mjoes, said Mr Ahtisaari had shown his sisu - the Finnish word for "guts" or the stubborn determination considered a trait of the Finns. "He is a world champion when it comes to peace and he never gives up."

A former primary school teacher, Mr Ahtisaari joined Finland's Foreign Service in 1965 and went on to work for the United Nations for 30 years. In between, he also served as president of Finland, from 1994 to 2000. He told Norwegian TV that he was "very pleased and grateful" to receive the prize, and he hoped the $1.4m (820,000) prize money would help finance Crisis Management International, the peace-making organisation he founded in 2000.

Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group, said he was delighted for the Finnish diplomat who chaired the think- tank from 2000 to 2004. "He has an extraordinary combination of personal qualities, of great charm and great good humour with iron determination. He's not the sort of diplomat who remains Delphic, everyone knows where he stands."

In 2005, he brokered an agreement between the government of Indonesia and the Aceh separatist guerrillas, ending a conflict that had lasted 140 years. "He was a kind of father figure," said Mr Evans, "very stern, very determined, brooking no nonsense on either side, but also very endearing in his personal qualities. It's an extraordinarily successful combination, and he should have got the award years ago".

For Mr Ahtisaari, it was his work in Namibia that was "absolutely the most important ... because it took such a long time". His involvement lasted from 1977 to 1990 and culminated in Namibia's independence from South Africa.

The finest fruit of his long years as a peacemaker in the Balkans was perhaps the independence of Kosovo, which was achieved bloodlessly. The Kosovar Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, said the Nobel prize was "the right decision for the right man" and said Mr Ahtisaari had the nation's appreciation.

Mr Ahtisaari is the first European to win the prize in a decade. Yesterday he declared that his next project would be tackling youth unemployment.

Give peace a chance

Martti Ahtisaari's greatest hits


A Guerrilla war broke out after South Africa defied a 1966 UN resolution demanding it give up the former German colony it had ruled since the end of the First World War. Mr Ahtisaari was sent as a UN envoy in 1977, and returned in 1989 with 8,000 UN peacekeepers. The war ended, Namibia declared independence in 1990, and Mr Ahtisaari and his wife were made honorary citizens.


Appointed chairman of the international peace conference on Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 and 1993, he returned in 1999 as UN envoy and helped negotiate an end to the Kosovo conflict. The territory declared independence in February 2008 on the basis of his plan.


Islamic guerrillas in Aceh, in the north of Sumatra, had been resisting the government since 1873. In 1976 Aceh declared independence, leading to 30 years of fighting. Mr Ahtisaari negotiated a peace deal in 2005.

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