11 October 2008

2008 Nobel Prize for Peace

The 2008 Nobel Prize for Peace has been awarded to Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland, diplomat and international negotiator, "for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts".

Martti Oiva Kalevi Ahtisaari was born on June 23rd, 1937 in Viipuri / Finland, where his father Oiva was a non-commissioned officer in the service corps.
Oiva Ahtisaari, whose grandfather had emigrated to Finland from southern Norway, took Finnish citizenship in 1929 and changed his surname from Adolfsen to Ahtisaari in 1935.
The war took Martti's father to the front as a military mechanic, while his mother Tyyne moved with her son to Kuopio to escape immediate danger. Kuopio was where Martti spent most of his childhood and first attended school.

In 1952 the family moved to Oulu and Martti Ahtisaari joined the local YMCA. After completing his military service (Ahtisaari still holds the rank of Captain in the Finnish Army Reserve) he began to study through a distance-learning course at the teachers' college in Oulu. Thus he was able to live at home while attending the two-year course, which qualified him as a primary school teacher in 1959. He also was an avid student of foreign languages, and besides his native tongue he also speaks Swedish, French, English and German.

In 1960 Martti Ahtisaari moved to Karachi in Pakistan, to lead the YMCA's physical education training establishment there. During this time he became accustomed to a more international environment. As well as managing the students' home, the job involved also the training of teachers, which in itself suited him well.
He returned to Finland in 1963 and attended the Helsinki Polytechnic Institute. He was also active in organisations responsible for aid to developing countries and joined AIESEC, the world's largest organisation of university students.

In 1965 Martti Ahtisaari joined Finland's Ministry for Foreign Affairs. He first served in the Bureau for International Development Aid, eventually becoming the assistant head of that department. Later Ahtisaari transferred to the diplomatic service and held a number of embassy posts, mostly in Africa. After several promotions he became Finland's Ambassador to Tanzania, Zambia, Somalia and Mozambique.

Following the death of the UN Commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson, on Pan Am Flight 103 (which exploded due to a bomb on board over the Scottish town of Lockerbie) on December 21th, 1988, Ahtisaari was sent to Namibia in April 1989 as the UN Special Representative to head the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG).
After completing this task, he became a member of the council that was seeking a peaceful settlement of the civil war in Bosnia.

He was still in this position, when Finland's Social Democratic Party asked him to become their candidate for the upcoming presidential election. After a change of the Constitution the President of Finland was directly elected by the people for the first time in 1993 (previously an electoral college made that decision) and thus the party was looking for a candidate without political baggage.
Ahtisaari accepted the candidacy and his politically untarnished image was a major factor in the election, as was his vision of Finland as an active participant in international affairs.

He narrowly won the election in the second round, beating his opponent Elisabeth Rehn of the Swedish People's Party, and served as Finland's first directly elected head of state from March 1994 to March 2000.

His term as President began with a schism in the Centre Party government, led by Prime Minister Esko Aho, who did not approve of Ahtisaari's active involvement in foreign policy. There was also some controversy over Ahtisaari's speaking out on domestic issues, such as unemployment.
He travelled extensively in Finland and abroad and was nicknamed 'Matka-Mara' (Travel-Mara).
His monthly travels throughout the country and his meetings with ordinary citizens - the so-called maakuntamatkat (provincial trips) - greatly enhanced his political popularity.

As President Martti Ahtisaari supported Finland's entry into the European Union, and in a referendum in 1994 a majority of 56% of Finnish voters were in favour of membership.

Following his invitation, Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton met in Helsinki. He also negotiated alongside Viktor Chernomyrdin with Slobodan Milošević to end the fighting in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo in 1999.

Often encountering resistance from the Finnish parliament, which preferred a more cautious foreign policy, as well as criticism from within his own party, Martti Ahtisaari did not seek re-election in 2000.
He was succeeded by the foreign minister Tarja Halonen, who became the first female President of Finland and is still the incumbent, now in her second term.

Since leaving office, Martti Ahtisaari accepted positions in various international organisations and founded the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), an independent non-governmental organisation with a goal in developing and sustaining peace in troubled areas.

In 2000 and 2001 he came to the North of Ireland and - together with Cyril Ramaphosa of the ANC - inspected IRA weapons dumps for the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (under the Canadian General John de Chastelain) as part of the Northern Ireland peace process.

In 2005 Ahtisaari successfully led peace negotiations between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government through his non-governmental organization CMI. The negotiations ended on August 15th, 2005 with a treaty on disarmament of GAM rebels, the dropping of GAM demands for an independent state of Aceh, and withdrawal of non-organic Indonesian forces.

In November 2005 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Martti Ahtisaari as Special Envoy for the Kosovo status process, which was to determine whether Kosovo should become independent or remain a province of Serbia. (Kosovo had been administered by the United Nations since the 1999 Kosovo War.)
Ahtisaari opened his UN Office (UNOSEK) in Vienna, from where he conducted the Kosovo status negotiations.
Those opposed to Ahtisaari's settlement proposal, which involved an internationally-monitored independence for Kosovo, sought to discredit him. Allegations made by Balkan media sources of corruption and improper conduct were described by US State Department spokesman Tom Casey as "spurious", adding that Ahtisaari's plan is the "best solution possible" and has "the full endorsement of the United States".

However, in July 2007, when the EU, Russia and the USA agreed to find a new format for the talks, Ahtisaari announced that he regarded his mission as over.
After a period of great uncertainty and mounting tension
Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008. (see my entry from March 1st)

Ahtisaari strongly defended the actions of US in the crisis that preceded the current war in Iraq. After the war had started, Ahtisaari said: "Since I know that about a million people have been killed by the government of Iraq, I do not need much those weapons of mass destruction". (Iraq's - non-existent -weapons of mass destruction were the primary reason the USA gave to justify the attack.)

Finnish intellectuals and the professor of history Juha Sihvola, who thinks the current war in Iraq is not justified, criticised Ahtisaari's conclusions about the morality of the war, saying that they were "astounding".

And Johan Galtung, the Norwegian founder of peace studies, also criticised heavily Ahtisaari's way of handling peace processes. Galtung claims that "Ahtisaari does not solve conflicts, but drives through short-term solutions that please western countries". He further says that Ahtisaari "lets the EU make use of him". According to Galtung, "Ahtisaari does not hesitate to favour solutions that bypass the United Nations and international law".

On the other hand, the Prime Minister of Finland Matti Vanhanen said that Ahtisaari has been "very determined in his peace negotiations" and that results are only achieved when peace processes are being moved ahead determinedly.

It is not unusual to hear and read such different statements. No-one who stands in the limelight of international politics has only friends or only enemies. People always takes sides, and have their own views, assessments and opinions.

The Nobel Committee in Oslo, which awards the Prize for Peace (while all the other Nobel Prizes are awarded by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm) must have weighed the different arguments and opinions of Martti Ahtisaari before they made their decision. They have found him worthy of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Peace, and he is certainly a worthy recipient.

Furthermore, the prize will help the work of the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), the organisation Martti Ahtisaari founded and uses for his peace negotiations.
The 71-year-old, who is married and has one son, is in good health and will certainly be strengthened and inspired to further initiatives by receiving this high international honour.

Having met him once briefly in Belfast, when he was here as member of the Decommissioning Board, I remember a man with determination, strength and will power, who is nevertheless very polite, speaks softly and has a certain charisma. And whatever his critics say about his work in Kosovo, for Ireland he has done a lot of good. With our thanks for that we combine our heartfelt congratulations and wish him good health and further success for many years to come.

The Emerald Islander

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