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Finnish diplomat wins Peace Prize

Nobel goes to Martti Ahtisaari, a tireless mediator in conflicts in the Balkans, Namibia and elsewhere.

October 11, 2008|Marjorie Miller and Henry Chu | Times Staff Writers

Calling him an "outstanding international mediator," the Norwegian Nobel Committee on Friday awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2008 to former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari for his efforts to resolve international conflicts across the globe, from Northern Ireland and Namibia to Kosovo, Indonesia and Iraq.

His efforts over three decades, including convening secret meetings in Finland this year between warring Sunni and Shiite groups from Iraq, "have contributed to a more peaceful world and to 'fraternity between nations' in Alfred Nobel's spirit," the committee said in announcing the award.

"He is a world champion when it comes to peace and he never gives up," said Ole Danbolt Mjoes, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel awards committee.

A lifelong diplomat who heads the nongovernmental Crisis Management Initiative, Ahtisaari is known as a quiet, self-effacing negotiator willing to step out of the way until needed and then to take a firm hand and, at times, risks to broker peace.

"Martti is a brilliant negotiator and mediator with a tremendously effective personal style that combines charm and good humor with an iron determination," said Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group, of which Ahtisaari is chairman emeritus.

Ahtisaari, 71, told Norwegian public broadcaster NRK that he considered his work as U.N. special envoy to Namibia to be his greatest accomplishment. He shepherded the country through a decade of negotiations between South West Africa People's Organization guerrillas and the South African apartheid government, resulting in Namibian independence in 1990.

"Of course Namibia is absolutely the most important, since it took so long," Ahtisaari said.

South Africa took over Namibia during World War I and despite a U.N.-mandated end to its rule in 1966, continued to hold the territory for decades as a buffer against Marxist Angola. In negotiations, Ahtisaari had to juggle the interests of an array of stakeholders who saw southwestern Africa as a frontline in the Cold War, including the United States, former colonial ruler Germany, Cuba and the Soviet Union.

Chester Crocker, who was U.S. assistant secretary of State for African affairs during the 1980s, said Ahtisaari was always analytic and constructively blunt with all sides.

"He'd say [to the Africans], 'You may not like what the American position is but they are the Americans and they mean it.' Then he'd come back to us and say, 'These are the political requirements of the parties,' " Crocker recalled. He added that Ahtisaari "has a tolerance for the bizarre quirks and odd behavior of big powers, as well as little countries."

Namibia's former prime minister and Parliament Speaker Theo-Ben Gurirab said the award was a "deserved honor," German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported. "It took decades, it took death, it took betrayal, it took suffering, but in the end he was part of the team that brought about the independence of Namibia," said Gurirab, who was the rebels' envoy to the U.N. during Ahtisaari's mediation.

Ahtisaari has the peace-maker's advantage of coming from the neutral country of Finland. He was born in Karelia, which his family left when he was 2 in 1939 during a Soviet invasion.

It is an experience he has said has given him a sensitivity to the plight of refugees caught up in wars.

As a young man, he set up a teacher training college in Pakistan for a Swedish charity before joining the Finnish Foreign Ministry in 1965. He began his international diplomatic career as Finland's youngest ambassador, to Tanzania in 1973. He then served at the United Nations in New York, became U.N. Commissioner for Namibia in 1977 and was named the U.N. envoy there the following year.

In 1994, Ahtisaari was voted in as Finland's first directly elected president, a largely ceremonial office that he held for one six-year term before returning to his first love of foreign affairs.

Ahtisaari is one of the main architects of Kosovo's independence. He was chairman of the Bosnia-Herzegovina working group in the international peace conference on the former Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1993 and then was special advisor to the U.N. secretary-general on Yugoslavia in 1993. During the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 1999 bombing campaign to force Serbia's withdrawal from Kosovo, Ahtisaari and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin were known to the Americans as "the hammer and the anvil," according to Strobe Talbott, then U.S. deputy secretary of State.

"Martti was the hammer to get [Serbian leader Slobodan] Milosevic to accept NATO's terms. He had credibility because he was a Finn and because he knew the Russians well and they respected him. And thanks to him the Kosovo war ended in the nick of time, because after 78 days of bombing, the allies were going wobbly," Talbott said.

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