Oslo: The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded on Friday to Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president who has spent 30 years ending conflict in troublespots ranging from Kosovo to Namibia and Indonesia.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee hailed the 71-year-old Ahtisaari “for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts.”
“These efforts have contributed to a more peaceful world and to ‘fraternity between nations´ in Alfred Nobel’s spirit,” committee head Ole Danbolt Mjoes said.
Ahtisaari, a quiet, portly man now afflicted by rheumatism, told Norwegian broadcaster NRK that his work as the UN special envoy to Namibia had been the highlight of his career.
“Of course Namibia is the most important since it took so long,” he said, adding that he was “very pleased” to win the prestigious prize.
As the UN secretary general’s special envoy, Ahtisaari guided Namibia towards a peaceful independence in 1990 after more than a decade of negotiations.
He also oversaw the 2005 reconciliation between the Indonesian government and Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels, ending a three-decade conflict that killed some 15,000 people.
In Europe, he helped Kosovo, which declared its independence in February, even though his mediation efforts failed to clinch an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo.
And in May 2000 the British government appointed Ahtisaari to co-head, with Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, the inspection of IRA arms’ dumps in Northern Ireland.
“Throughout all his adult life, whether as a senior Finnish public servant and president or in an international capacity, often connected to the United Nations, Ahtisaari has worked for peace and reconciliation,” Mjoes said.
Although he most recently displayed his talents as a mediator in Europe, Ahtisaari cut his diplomatic teeth in Africa. He was appointed Finland’s ambassador to Tanzania in 1973, at the age of 36.
He became UN Commissioner for Namibia in 1977 and in 1978 was named the UN envoy to Namibia.
In 1994 Finland’s Social Democratic Party nominated him to run for the presidency and Ahtisaari became the first directly elected Finnish president.
Made fun of by the press for his large size and his limp, Ahtisaari was ill at ease with the largely ceremonial role of president. With his true passion in foreign affairs, Ahtisaari likened his tour in domestic politics, which lasted until 2000, to “an extramarital affair”.
At the end of 2005, Ahtisaari was appointed the UN special envoy for talks on Kosovo, seven years after he played a key role in bringing an end to hostilities in the Serbian province.
He recommended independence for the breakaway Serbian province, where there is an ethnic Albanian majority, but his inability to get the two sides to agree was a blow for him.
With its decision to hand the 2008 prize to Ahtisaari, the Nobel committee has returned to a more tradition interpretation of the award, after several recent prizes expanded its boundaries to take in environmental work, for instance.
Last year’s Peace Prize went to former US vice president Al Gore and the United Nations panel on climate change.
Ahtisaari will receive a Nobel diploma, medal and a cheque for $1.42 million at a ceremony in Oslo on 10 December.
The announcement of the prize came a day after the Nobel Literature Prize was awarded to French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio.
French and German scientists credited with the discovery of the viruses behind AIDS and cervical cancer won the medicine prize, while the physics prize was awarded to Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa of Japan and Yoichiro Nambu of the United States for groundbreaking theoretical work in fundamental particles.
Osamu Shimomura of Japan and US duo Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien won the chemistry prize for a fluorescent jellyfish protein that has become a vital lab tool.
The Nobel Economics Prize wraps up the awards on 13 October.