Saturday, October 11, 2008

OSLO | Finland‘s former President Martti Ahtisaari won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for his efforts to build a lasting peace from Africa and Asia to Europe and the Middle East.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee said it honored Mr. Ahtisaari for important efforts 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,” the committee said in announcing the prize.

The award, however, drew some criticism for not highlighting China’s crackdown in Tibet and on human rights activists.

Speculation had focused on using the prize to honor the 60th anniversary of the signing of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights by singling out dissidents in China, Russia and Vietnam, overshadowed the decision.

“It is an opportunity missed to change the world for the better by encouraging reform in China,” said Edward McMillan-Scott, a British member of the European Parliament who had nominated Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and AIDS and environmental activist Hu Jia for the prestigious prize.

On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry hinted it didn’t want Chinese human rights activists to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, saying the award should go to the “right people.”

By selecting Mr. Ahtisaari, 71, for the prize, the Nobel committee returned its focus to traditional peace work after tapping climate campaigner Al Gore and the U.N. panel on climate change last year.

“He is a world champion when it comes to peace and he never gives up,” said Ole Danbolt Mjoes, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel awards committee.

The award, he said, was in line with recent Nobels to other peace mediators, notably Jimmy Carter in 2002 and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2001.

Mr. Ahtisaari told Associated Press Television News that while winning the 10 million kronor ($1.4 million) prize would help his future mediation work, he is looking to other challenges, too, particularly youth unemployment worldwide.

But he also conceded that the decades of work have taken a toll.

“I have to start realizing that I am 71” and maybe it’s time to stop “traveling 200 days a year outside Finland.”

Mr. Ahtisaari had been mentioned in speculation as a possible Nobel Peace Prize candidate since 2005, just after he negotiated an end to a conflict in Indonesia that began more than 140 years ago, bringing together the Indonesian government and the leaders of the separatist guerrilla movement in Aceh province. He initiated and mediated peace talks in Finland, and a peace agreement was signed in Helsinki.

A primary school teacher who joined Finland’s Foreign Ministry in 1965, Mr. Ahtisaari spent 20 years abroad, first as ambassador to Tanzania and then to the United Nations in New York.

In 1994, Mr. Ahtisaari accepted the presidential candidacy of Finland’s Social Democratic Party and won the election. He did not seek re-election in 2000 and has since worked on international peace efforts.

In 2007, Mr. Ahtisaari’s office - Crisis Management Initiative - started secret meetings in Finland between Iraqi Sunni and Shi’ite groups to agree on a road map to peace.

“He managed to get 36 senior Iraqis to Helsinki in April 2008, and is now working on a next meeting in Baghdad,” Mr. Mjoes of the Nobel committee said of the efforts.

Mr. Ahtisaari was chairman of the Bosnia-Herzegovina working group in the international peace conference on former Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1993, and was special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general on former Yugoslavia in 1993.

Serbia bitterly rejected his attempts to forge a compromise settlement on Kosovo, which declared independence in February, but his blueprint forms the essence of Kosovo’s constitution.

Vojislav Kostunica, who led Serbia’s government as prime minister during the Kosovo talks, saw the award as political and a sign of further pressure on Serbia to give up Kosovo.

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci hailed the Nobel selection as “the right decision for the right man.”

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