Nobel Prize Winner Ahtisaari: 'Every conflict can be solved'

October 29, 2008

A student reading and questions on the work of this former president of Finland and accomplished mediator.

To the Teacher:

Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland, has worked as a mediator for three decades to help enemies solve their conflicts in places as far flung as Aceh in Indonesia, Namibia, and Northern Ireland. His success earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008. The student reading below describes some of his work as well as criticism of it.


Student Reading: 

Martti Ahtisaari's Peacemaking

"Every conflict can be solved" is the motto of Martti Ahtisaari. His success in helping enemies solve conflicts across a table, even if it takes years, won Ahtisaari the Nobel Peace Prize for 2008. Ahtisaari, who was president of Finland from 1994 to 2000, has also been a United Nations diplomat and mediator.

Ahtisaari's motto has been put to the test many times. One came a few years ago in Aceh, an area in northern Sumatra, one of Indonesia's many islands. After American oil and gas companies began exploiting Aceh's natural resources, a Free Aceh movement was organized to demand a share of both this oil and gas wealth and independence for the people of Aceh. Indonesian troops cracked down violently on this opposition force; thousands of people were killed.

After many years of conflict the Indonesian government invited Finland's non-governmental organization, the Crisis Management Initiative, which was founded by Ahtisaari, to help resolve the issues. "Do you want to win, or do you want peace?" he asked the contending parties. In 2005 the answer was peace, and the two sides agreed to cease hostilities.

Over the past 30 years, Ahtisaari has also helped to mediate conflicts in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, and in the African nation of Namibia. Ahtisaari says he thinks his greatest accomplishment is his work as a UN special envoy to Namibia. That effort took ten years of negotiations between the South West Africa People's Organization, a Namibian guerrilla movement, and South Africa, which at the time had an all-white apartheid government that annexed Namibia after World War II. The result was South Africa's acceptance of Namibian independence in 1990.

As a mediator, Ahtisaari has helped opponents to communicate with one another, to determine what the real issues separating them are, and to generate win-win solutions that meet the needs and interests of all parties. This is hard work: For instance, Northern Ireland and Britain were enemies, at times murderous enemies, for hundreds of years before they finally reached a mediated peace agreement in 2007.

For all his accomplishments, Ahtisaari has his critics. Among them is Johan Galtung, a Norwegian scholar of peace studies who founded the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo and the Journal of Peace Research. He rejects Ahtisaari's way of handling conflicts, claiming that he "does not solve conflicts but drives through short-term solutions that please Western countries."

The conflict between Serbia and Kosovo, a Serb province, is a case in point. Serbia is a Balkan nation whose people are mostly ethnically Serb and Orthodox Christian. Kosovo's are mostly ethnically Albanian and Muslim. These ethnic and religious differences, as well as historical conflicts and Serb repression, led to a Kosovan insurgency in 1995 to establish independence. Serb massacres and expulsions of Kosovans led to NATO intervention and U.S. bombing of Serbia. Russia, historically a Serb ally, opposed the intervention.

Efforts to resolve the conflict through the UN failed. Ahtisaari then proposed a settlement that would give Kosovo independence overseen by international institutions. Russia vetoed it in the Security Council. In February 2008, Kosovo declared its independence unilaterally and gained recognition of its status by the U.S. and most European countries, but not by Russia and Serbia.

In its criticism of Ahtisaari's award of the Nobel Peace Prize, Moscow News editorialized that "the United States and several European countries decided to support [the Kosovan insurgents] and enabled [them] to establish control over Kosovo, thanks to a plan formulated by UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari in violation of international law." (10/16/08) Galtung, too, has criticized Ahtisaari for favoring solutions he regards as bypassing the United Nations and international law. But Madeleine Albright, the U.S. Secretary of State at the time the U.S. bombed Serbia, said that she could not "think of a prize that is more richly deserved." (New York Times, 10/10/08)

In awarding Ahtisaari the prize worth $1.4 million, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said that his efforts "have contributed to a more peaceful world and to 'fraternity between nations'... 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.

"Through his untiring efforts and good results, he has shown what role mediation of various kinds can play in the resolution of international conflicts. The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to express the hope that others may be inspired by his efforts and achievements."

Born in 1937, Ahtisaari had to move repeatedly with his family because troops from the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939 and occupied the part of Finland where they lived during most of the World War II years. "He said that experience had given him a lifelong sympathy for the 'eternally displaced' and a 'desire to advance peace and thus help others who have gone through similar experiences.'" (New York Times, 10/10/08)

As an adult, Ahtisaari first became an elementary school teacher before he joined Finland's foreign ministry and became its ambassador to Tanzania. Later he became Finland's president. In more recent years he has worked for the United Nations, become chairman of the International Crisis Group and established the Crisis Management Initiative. Last year he arranged secret peace meetings in Finland between Iraqi Sunni and Shiite groups.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Ahtisaari has helped to solve conflicts that result from ethnic, religious, racial and power disputes. In each case, what makes their solution so difficult?

3. Do you agree with him that "Every conflict can be solved"? Can you name any international conflicts other than the ones discussed in the reading that have been solved? That haven't?

4. Resolving conflicts usually involves a win-win solution. What do you understand such a solution to mean? Did the Serbia-Kosovo conflict produce a win-win solution? Why or why not? Northern Ireland?

5. While Ahtisaari has had much success in his mediations, he has also received criticism. Why? How justified is such criticism? If you don't know but wanted to find out, how would you go about it?


For independent and/or small group inquiry, ask students to frame a question or two on one of the conflicts named in the reading (or another conflict). See "Thinking Is Questioning" for suggested approaches to teaching question-asking and question-analysis. After students get the teacher's approval for their question, they can investigate it, then prepare a written report and/or presentation to the class.



This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them