A Finnish refugee who spread peace around the world

by MMC
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Helsinki (AFP) – Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who died Monday at the age of 86, was a mediator who brokered peace around the world, winning the Nobel Peace Prize for a formidable career spanning more than 40 years.

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Ahtisaari had battled Alzheimer’s disease, which forced him to retire from public life in September 2021.

The former UN diplomat was credited with overseeing the 2005 talks between the Indonesian government and Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels, which ended a three-decade conflict in which some 15,000 people were killed.

Both sides described Ahtisaari, who served as president of his native Finland between 1994 and 2000, as someone steely but with a sense of humor and warmth.

“I have a tremendous amount of patience. I don’t usually get angry, but I can be tough,” he later said, adding that he felt the key to his success was his ability to understand people.

Ahtisaari also helped lead Kosovo on the path to independence, although his intense efforts failed to reach a deal with Serbia before Pristina unilaterally declared independence in 2008.

Childhood during wartime

Martti Oiva Kalevi Ahtisaari was born on June 23, 1937 in Viipuri – now Vyborg – in the Finnish province of Karelia, which his family was forced to flee at the end of World War II after its annexation by the Soviet Union.

He said his childhood war and refugee experience “gave me sensitivity…Maybe it made me a peace negotiator.”

An academic career led to a teaching post in Pakistan in the early 1960s, before entering the diplomatic service.

Ahtisaari was appointed ambassador to Tanzania in 1973, at the age of 36. Transferred to the UN, he served as special envoy to Namibia, where he helped lead the country to independence from South Africa in 1990.

“Perhaps the most traumatic experience took place on April 1, 1989, when SWAPO (rebel) troops arrived from Angola and more than 300 people were killed,” he recalls.

“If I could solve this problem, I would feel like there’s no problem I can’t solve,” he said.

Getting into politics

In 1994, the Finnish Social Democratic Party nominated him as its presidential candidate, and Ahtisaari became the country’s first directly elected president.

Seasoned negotiator: Ahtisaari on the phone in a hotel in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 2005
Seasoned negotiator: Ahtisaari on the phone in a hotel in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 2005 © MARCO LONGARI / AFP

“He was a transitional president who guided Finland into the era of the global EU,” current President Sauli Niinisto said after Ahtisaari’s death.

However, the man of action, who limped due to rheumatism, felt uncomfortable in this essentially ceremonial role.

His true passion remained foreign affairs, and Ahtisaari later compared his six years of domestic politics to “an extramarital affair.”

In 2000, Ahtisaari became involved in the Northern Ireland peace process, inspecting IRA arms depots with current South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

He was appointed UN special envoy for negotiations on the status of Kosovo in 2005 and recommended independence for the breakaway province, only to be repeatedly accused of bias by the Serbs.

His failure to persuade the two sides to agree before Kosovo unilaterally declared independence angered him.

Elder statesman

In 2008, at age 71, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts “on several continents and for more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts”.

Old age has not dampened Ahtisaari’s dynamism.

He insisted retirement was “not on the agenda yet” as he continued to travel the world promoting peace among a group known as the “Ancients”, including former US President Jimmy Carter, former UN chief Kofi Annan and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. .

After turning 80, Ahtisaari resigned as president of the peace institute Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) which he had founded 17 years earlier, but continued to be involved in their mediation work.

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