When Martti Ahtisaari, the sturdy Finn who successfully negotiated agreements to end conflicts in Asia, Africa and Europe, accepts the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 10, it will be the fourteenth Peace Prize to go to a person or group involved in United Nations work.
Inevitably, in an organization of 192 member nations with differing opinions on war and peace, there is controversy. In Ahtisaari’s case, critics are focused on his most recent assignment, Kosovo, and whether he acquiesced too readily in the Kosovars’ demand for independence from Serbia, which rankled in Moscow. The Nobel committee took a longer view of his career.
Kofi Annan, who as UN secretary general sent Ahtisaari on some of his most challenging missions, including Kosovo, describes him as “the only man I know who has made peace on three continents.” In a telephone interview from his office in Geneva, Annan acknowledged that not everyone supports the outcome in Kosovo, but he applauded the Nobel award. “I don’t think the prize could have gone to a better person than Martti, who has been engaged in peace processes since the late ’70s,” he said.
For more than three decades, Ahtisaari has ranked high among a small band of global troubleshooters for the UN, none of them American. They include Lakhdar Brahimi from Algeria; Alvaro de Soto of Peru; the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian; and the redoubtable Margaret Anstee of Britain, one of the few women in the field (she wrote about her eventful and sometimes zany life in the 2004 book Never Learn to Type).
Ahtisaari, a 71-year-old former schoolteacher, possesses a formidable demeanor: tall, solidly built and not given to emotion. His colleagues say this matches a character of strong conviction, perseverance in negotiations, a penchant for blunt talking and, when needed, undiplomatic language and some table-pounding.
“Martti has deep political instincts and is guided by rock-solid moral principles,” said Frederic Eckhard, who was a top aide to Ahtisaari in Namibia and the Balkans. Ahtisaari never masked his opinions in reports to the UN. In 1991, looking at the human fallout of the war to liberate Kuwait, he accused the United States of bombing Iraq into a “pre-industrial age.” In 2003 he blasted the UN for the “bureaucratic inertia” that led to security lapses at UN headquarters in Baghdad, where twenty-two people were killed (including Vieira de Mello) when the building was hit by a truck bomb. “Whatever people said, it could have been prevented,” Eckhard is quoted as saying in his forthcoming book Kofi Annan, whom he served as spokesman when Annan was head of UN peacekeeping and later secretary general.
Ahtisaari, who served as Finland’s ambassador to several African countries in the 1970s (and later was president of Finland from 1994 to 2000), has said that the most important work of his life was done in Namibia, a former German colony known as South West Africa, where apartheid South Africa claimed jurisdiction in defiance of UN resolutions. “Martti served so long as a diplomat in Africa that I believe he planted roots there,” said Eckhard.