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Martti Ahtisaari, conflict mediator who won Nobel Peace Prize, dies at 86

Martti Ahtisaari, a gifted diplomat and former president of Finland who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for his patient, hands-on role mediating ethnic and political conflicts in South Africa, Kosovo and Northern Ireland, died Oct. 16. He was 86.

The Finnish organization CMI, which Mr. Ahtisaari founded to promote peace and resolve international conflicts, announced his death but did not provide additional details. Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, disclosed in 2021 that Mr. Ahtisaari was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

In his Nobel lecture, Mr. Ahtisaari struck an undaunted, hopeful tone that typified his approach to diplomacy.

“Peace is a question of will,” he said. “All conflicts can be settled, and there are no excuses for allowing them to become eternal. It is simply intolerable that violent conflicts defy resolution for decades causing immeasurable human suffering, and preventing economic and social development.”

Mr. Ahtisaari employed what Gareth Evans, a former president of the International Crisis Group, once described as a negotiating “style that combines charm and good humor with an iron determination.”

After Mr. Ahtisaari negotiated a peace agreement between Indonesia and the separatist Free Aceh Movement in 2005, Indonesian government envoy Farid Husain said that Mr. Ahtisaari “exuded authority like a father” and that “his method was really extraordinary. He said, ‘Do you want to win, or do you want peace?’”

Mr. Ahtisaari joined Finland’s Foreign Ministry in 1965 and began his first major peace effort in the 1970s, helping secure Namibia’s independence from South Africa while serving as a special appointee of the United Nations. In return for his help, Namibia made him an honorary citizen.

“Many boys in Namibia are named Martti,” Ole Danbolt Mjoes, a member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, told the New York Times in 2008. “That must be at least as great an honor as being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.”

In 1994, Mr. Ahtisaari, a Social Democrat, was elected president in Finland’s first direct presidential election, which had previously been determined by an electoral college. He helped guide the country’s move into the European Union and presided over a significant drop in unemployment.

Toward the end of his presidential term in 1999, Mr. Ahtisaari worked with former Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Strobe Talbott, U.S. deputy secretary of state, to broker an agreement leading to Serbia’s military withdrawal from Kosovo.

Six years later, the United Nations appointed Mr. Ahtisaari as special envoy to Kosovo, overseeing negotiations for its eventual declaration of independence from Serbia. In between his Kosovo assignments, Mr. Ahtisaari worked as a weapons inspector monitoring caches of arms that the Irish Republican Army agreed to dump.

Examining a pile of rifles stored in a woodsy building resembling a potato cellar, Mr. Ahtisaari broke the tension by telling another inspector, “There must be a better way to earn one’s living,” according to “The Mediator: A Biography of Martti Ahtisaari” (2015) by Katri Merikallio and Tapani Ruokanen.

Martti Oiva Kalevi Ahtisaari was born June 23, 1937, in Viipuri, a town in eastern Finland. His father was a millworker and then an army vehicle mechanic. His mother was a homemaker.

World War II was the defining event of his life. When he was 2, Soviet troops arrived in his town, causing his family to flee.

“Like several hundred thousand fellow Karelians, we became refugees in our own country as great power politics caused the borders of Finland to be redrawn and left my hometown as part of the Soviet Union,” Mr. Ahtisaari said in his Nobel lecture. “This childhood experience contributed to my commitment to working on the resolution of conflicts.”

Mr. Ahtisaari graduated from the Oulu University Teacher Training School in 1959 and became a teacher. After a year in the classroom, he became an aide worker, first in Pakistan and then for international student organizations. After joining Finland’s Foreign Ministry, he served as an ambassador to Tanzania, Zambia and Somalia.

Negotiating ethnic and political conflicts required the skills of a “ship’s pilot, consulting medical doctor, midwife and teacher,” Mr. Ahtisaari said in his Nobel lecture.

“Mediators do not choose the conflicts they became involved in but the parties to the conflict choose the mediator,” he said. “Their participation as intermediaries is based on the trust of all the conflicting parties.”

Mr. Ahtisaari married Eeva Hyvarinen in 1968. Survivors include his wife and their son, Marko.

During his Nobel lecture, Mr. Ahtisaari weighed in on the seemingly intractable conflicts in the Middle East.

“The tensions and wars in the region have been going on for so long that many have come to believe that the Middle East knot can never be untied,” he said.

“The credibility of the whole international community is at stake,” he said. “We cannot go on, year after year, simply pretending to do something to help the situation in the Middle East. We must also get results.”

Mr. Ahtisaari did not accept the common view that tensions between religions made the problem unsolvable.

“During my career I have seen many crises in which religion has been used as a weapon or as an instrument for prolonging the conflict,” Mr. Ahtisaari said. “Religions themselves are, however, peace-loving.”


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