Ex-President Of Finland Is Awarded Peace Prize

Finland's ex-president Martti Ahtisaari was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for his efforts to build a lasting peace from Africa and Asia to Europe and the Middle East. Video by AP
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 11, 2008

PARIS, Oct. 10 -- Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president who has been a tireless mediator in conflicts around the world for more than three decades, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday and expressed hope that the prize will help him raise funds for further peacemaking in hot spots to come.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee picked Ahtisaari, 71, from a 197-name list of nominees including jailed Chinese dissidents and the recently liberated Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt. Leaving aside headline-grabbing figures, the committee honored a corpulent former schoolteacher and diplomat known for indefatigable persistence in negotiations to bring peaceful closes to wars in countries including Namibia, Indonesia, Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland.

"He is a world champion when it comes to peace, and he never gives up," Ole Danbolt Mjoes, the awards committee chairman, told reporters in Oslo.

"Through his untiring efforts and good results, he has shown what role mediation of various kinds can play in the resolution of international conflicts," the committee said in announcing the award. "The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to express the hope that others may be inspired by his efforts and his achievements."

The $1.4 million prize will be formally awarded in Oslo on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish scientist who invented dynamite and used his fortune to set up the Nobel awards upon his death in 1895. The annual recognitions, particularly the peace prize, have become the world's most prestigious awards.

Last year's peace prize was won by former vice president Al Gore and the U.N. climate change department for their work on the environment. Former president Jimmy Carter was honored in 2002 for his efforts after leaving the White House to fight poverty in poor nations and to monitor elections in countries with unstable democratic institutions.

China's Communist Party rulers were likely to be particularly pleased by the choice this year. A jailed Chinese activist, Hu Jia, was rumored to be on the shortlist as the Norwegian committee weighed its decision. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing, Qin Gang, said Tuesday that honoring Hu would have been "against the purpose of such a prize" because he was convicted of "subverting the state" by posting anti-government opinions on the Web and criticizing the party in interviews with foreign journalists.

Ahtisaari, interviewed by Norway's NRK television, expressed gratitude for the honor, in reserved tones that seemed to arise from his years as a negotiator rather than a moment of celebration. Demonstrating the practical bent that has characterized his career, he said the recognition should make it easier to raise funds for his international mediation organization in Helsinki, Crisis Management Initiative.

"It's very important to be able to act properly," he said, according to news agency reports from Oslo. "You need financing, and you never have enough."

The longtime international mediator was most recently in the spotlight for his efforts to broker a peaceful resolution for Kosovo as it sought to become independent from Serbia. Appointed U.N. special envoy for Kosovo in 2005, Ahtisaari concluded that an internationally monitored independence was the only way out. In the face of Russian opposition, the U.N. plan was never officially carried out, however, and Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in February over protests from Serbia.

The new country's prime minister, Hashim Thaci, described the committee's selection as "the right decision for the right man," the Associated Press reported from Pristina, the Kosovo capital.

Shortly before taking over the Kosovo portfolio, Ahtisaari had negotiated a peaceful end to the longstanding conflict between the Indonesian government and secessionist rebels in the Aceh region on the island of Sumatra. Returning home from the Kosovo mission, he also tried last year to facilitate reconciliation between Iraq's warring Sunni and Shiite factions.

But Ahtisaari told NRK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corp., that he considered his greatest achievement to be helping smooth the way for Namibia's accession to independence, which he supervised as the U.N. commissioner for Namibia between 1977 and 1981 and again as a special U.N. representative in 1989 after the death of his successor as commissioner.

Ahtisaari was born June 23, 1937, in territory that is now part of Russia. After correspondence courses, he qualified as a primary school teacher and, at 23, traveled to Pakistan to run a YMCA training center in Karachi. Five years later, he joined the Finnish Foreign Ministry and launched his career in development aid and international relations.

After a term as the Finnish ambassador accredited to Tanzania, Zambia, Somalia and Mozambique, he took up his U.N. post as Namibia commissioner. He was elected president of Finland in 1994 as the candidate of the Social Democratic Party and served until 2000, ushering Finland into the European Union and spending so much time mediating in the former Yugoslavia that he was nicknamed "Travel-Mara" back home. Since leaving the presidency, he has worked as an international mediator, at times under the U.N. aegis and at others in the name of his own organization.

Ahtisaari conceded Friday that this pace of life has taken a toll. "I have to start realizing that I am 71," he told AP television, and maybe it is time to stop "traveling 200 days a year outside Finland."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company