Marti Ahtisaari, Aceh Peace Accord Maker, Dies at 86

Helsinki. Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland and global peace broker who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for his work on international conflict resolution, died on Monday. He is 86 years old.

The foundation he created to prevent and resolve violent conflicts said in a statement it was „deeply saddened by the loss of its founder and (former) board chairman.”

In 2021, it was announced that Ahtisaari had advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

„We are deeply saddened by the news of President Martti Ahtisaari’s death,” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said in a statement. „He was a president in times of transition, he steered Finland into the global EU era.”

Niinisto described Ahtisaari in a televised address as „a citizen of the world, a great Finn. A teacher, diplomat and head of state. A peace negotiator and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Regular programming on Finnish public broadcaster YLE was interrupted for Niinisto’s speech.

Ahtisaari helped reach peace accords related to Serbia’s withdrawal from Kosovo in the late 1990s, Namibia’s bid for independence in the 1980s, and autonomy for Aceh province in Indonesia in 2005. Tasked with monitoring the IRA’s disarmament process.

„President Ahtisaari dedicated his entire life to peace, diplomacy, the good of humanity, and exerted an extraordinary influence on our present and future,” said Kosovar President Vijosa Usmani. „He engraved the law of our country, and his name will remain forever in the pages of the history of the Republic of Kosovo.”

European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen called him „a visionary” and a „champion of peace” on X, formerly known as Twitter. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Ahtisaari „made an important contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland”.

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When the Norwegian Nobel Peace Committee selected Ahtisaari in October 2008, it cited him „for his important efforts to resolve international conflicts on many continents and over three decades”.

Ahtisaari, who was president of the Nordic country for a six-year term from 1994 to 2000, later founded the Helsinki-based Crisis Management Initiative, which aims to prevent and resolve violent conflicts through informal dialogue and mediation.

Born on June 23, 1937 in the eastern city of Vaipuri in what is now Russia, Ahtisaari was a primary school teacher before joining Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1965. He spent about 20 years abroad, first in Tanzania, Zambia and Somalia, and as an ambassador. Then to the United Nations in New York.

He later joined the UN, working at its New York headquarters, and in 1978 was appointed Special Representative for Namibia by then UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim.

He led a UN peacekeeping mission in the 1980s that led to Namibia’s independence from South Africa in 1990. During his diplomatic tenure in Africa in the 1970s, Ahtisaari was deeply involved in preparing Namibians for independence.

The Namibian government thanked Ahtisaari for his work and later made him an honorary citizen of the country.

After returning to Finland in 1991, Ahtisaari served as secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before being elected president in 1994. He was the first Finnish head of state to be elected directly instead of through the Electoral College.

Having lived abroad for a long time, he entered the race as a political outsider, bringing a breath of fresh air to Finnish politics. Ahtisaari was a strong supporter of the European Union and NATO, which Finland joined in 1995 and 2023 respectively.

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His international highlight came in 1999 when he negotiated an end to fighting in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo — with Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia’s ambassador to the Balkans. Ahtisaari also hosted Russian President Boris Yeltsin and US President Bill Clinton at the March 1997 US-Russia Summit in Helsinki, Finland.

Ahtisaari „had a great heart and he believed in man,” Niinistö said.

„In his speech at the Nobel celebration, Ahtisaari said that all conflicts can be resolved: 'Wars and conflicts are inevitable. They are caused by human beings,'” Niinisto said. „There are always interests that promote war. Therefore, those with power and influence can prevent them.”

As president, Ahtisaari traveled abroad more than any of his predecessors. At home, he often appeared impatient and irritated by media criticism — something he was more comfortable with in international circles.

He declined to run for a second term in the January 2000 presidential election, saying he wanted to spend the time he used to campaign for Finland’s first rotating EU presidency in 1999.

After the Finnish presidency, he was offered several international positions, including at the United Nations Refugee Agency, but decided instead to open his own office in Helsinki, which focused on mediating international crises.

In May 2017, Ahtisaari stepped down as head of the Crisis Management Initiative, which helps resolve global conflicts, but said he would continue to work with the organization as a consultant. He was replaced by former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb, who is now running for president.

Stubb responded to Ahtisaari’s death in X by saying, „Maybe now more than ever the world needs people like him”.

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Ahtisaari lives with his wife Eva and their adult son Marco.

Ahtisaari’s body will be cremated following the state funeral, CMI said. The date will be announced later.

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