By awarding former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari this year's Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian prize committee is returning to its original mandate of honoring those who help in the resolution of conventional armed conflicts. For the past several years, the committee has opted for nontraditional honorees, from Al Gore for his work on climate change to the microcredit guru Muhammad Yunus for his work in extending small loans to the world's poor. The choice of Ahtisaari, a lifelong diplomat whose work over 30 years on three continents has helped bring an end to fighting and saved thousands of lives, is a vote of confidence for the ancient art of diplomacy and mediation in bringing an end to violence.
The committee said it decided to give the award to Ahtisaari "for his important efforts ... to resolve international conflicts. These efforts have contributed to a more peaceful world and to 'fraternity between nations,' in Alfred Nobel's spirit. Through his untiring efforts and good results, he has shown what role mediation of various kinds can play in the resolution of international conflicts."
Ahtisaari, 71, may be best known for his work in Kosovo, where he helped midwife the cease-fire that led to the withdrawal of Serbian troops from the province after the NATO bombing campaign in 1999. He also played a key role when, as the United Nations' special envoy to the former Serbian province, he drew up a plan for its independence. That plan was ultimately vetoed by Russia in the U.N. Security Council. But many of its recommendations for power-sharing and administration are currently being implemented by the new government in Pristina. The Norwegian committee's decision to honor Ahtisaari is, in fact, a clear indication of support for Kosovo, which remains in a kind of legal limbo, thanks to the refusal of Serbia, Russia and other countries to recognize its unilateral declaration of independence earlier this year.
Ahtisaari, a former primary-school teacher, joined the Finnish Foreign Ministry as a diplomat in the mid-'60s. His first peace mediation job was as U.N. envoy to Namibia, where guerrillas were fighting the apartheid government of South Africa. He spent 20 years abroad as a diplomat for Finland and the U.N. before contesting and winning the presidential election in 1994, serving one term before returning to mediation work full time.