Martti Ahtisaari, Finnish Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dies at 86

Martti Ahtisaari, a dogged Finnish statesman whose many quests to end conflict took him from the deserts of Namibia to secret arms caches in remote Irish farmlands, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize, died on Monday. He was 86.

The foundation he created for preventing and resolving violent conflicts announced his death. It did not say where he died. In 2021, it was disclosed that Mr. Ahtisaari had advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

While he sometimes seemed in public almost the stereotype of the dour-looking, tight-lipped, besuited diplomat, Mr. Ahtisaari traced his desire for reconciliation to a peripatetic childhood during World War II, when his family was forced to flee before the Red Army’s advances across his native land, moving with his mother from sanctuary to sanctuary.

This experience “explains my desire to advance peace and thus help others who have gone through similar experiences as I did,” he said in 2008, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

He was mostly associated with the long-running and tortuous negotiations to end the guerrilla war between Namibian insurgents and apartheid-era South Africa, which ruled Namibia, a sparsely populated southern African territory, in defiance of the United Nations. When Namibia secured its independence in 1990, Mr. Ahtisaari was given honorary citizenship, and it was widely reported that many Namibians named their children in his honor.

He also played central roles in advancing the cause of peace in the Balkans, Northern Ireland and the Indonesian province of Aceh. Along the way he served as his country’s president — his only elected office — and joined an illustrious group of international figures known as the Elders, inspired by Nelson Mandela.

International diplomacy and peace negotiations are often associated with closed rooms and terse communiqués, but, on several occasions Mr. Ahtisaari literally got his feet — or at least his shoes — dirty in the process of verifying pledges by the Irish Republican Army to place weapons under seal so that they could no longer be deployed.

In 2000, after retiring from the Finnish presidency, he was asked by the British authorities whether he would join with Cyril Ramaphosa, a South African labor leader and anti-apartheid activist who later became his country’s president, to undertake a confidence-building initiative involving the I.R.A.’s promises to abandon hostilities in Northern Ireland.

Their mission was crucial to reinforcing the Good Friday peace agreement, signed in 1987, that ended three decades of insurgency known as the Troubles in which some 3,000 people died. It led to the I.R.A.’s formal disarmament several years later.

The process led from clandestine political meetings with the Irish republican leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to convoluted arrangements to ferry the two mediators in vans, cars and even on the wooden trailer of a farm tractor between I.R.A. safe houses and secret arms dumps, according to Katri Merikallio and Tapani Ruokanen, authors of a 2006 biography of Mr. Ahtisaari called “The Mediator.” The outsiders’ task was to ensure that, over three secret visits, the weapons were placed under and remained under seal.

Along the way, Mr. Ahtisaari and Mr. Ramaphosa arrived at “the front of a building resembling a potato cellar.”

“Lying at the foot of some stairs, instead of potatoes, there was a considerable number of rifles and machine guns,” Mr. Ahtisaari told his biographers.

“We counted the weapons and pulled plastic seal strapping through and around them. When the weapons had been bundled up and we climbed up out of the dark cellar, I said to Cyril: ‘There must be a better way to earn one’s living.’ The tension ebbed and everyone burst out laughing.”

Martti Oiva Kalevi Ahtissari was born on June 23, 1937, in the city of Viipuri in the Karelia region of eastern Finland. His father, Oiva Ahtissari, a naturalized Finn born in Norway, was a noncommissioned officer and mechanic in the Finnish Army. The father’s Norwegian family name had been Adolfsen, which he Finnicised to Ahtissari shortly before Martti Ahtissari’s birth.

His mother, Tyyne Ahtisaari (born Tyyne Karonen), was the daughter of a farming family. The couple had an earlier child, a daughter, Marja-Lisa, who died in infancy.

With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, when Martti was just over 2 years old, the Soviet Red Army began attacking the Karelia region, sending many residents fleeing. In 1941, Finnish troops, allied to Nazi Germany, retook Viipuri. After Germany’s defeat, Viipuri was part of territory ceded to the Soviets.

On his diplomatic travels many years later, Mr. Ahtisaari once said, he had been able to identify easily with the displaced people he met. “In the midst of war they are obliged to leave their own homes and live in the corners of other people’s,” he said.

In 1952, the family moved from Kuipio to Oulu in northern Finland, where Mr. Ahtisaari qualified in 1959 as a teacher. He spent time in the early 1960s as an aid worker in Pakistan.

He joined his country’s foreign ministry in 1965 and, eight years later, was posted as ambassador to Tanzania. He was also his country’s envoy to Mozambique, Somalia and Zambia at a time when the continent’s tide of independence was moving southward. Zambia had achieved its independence from Britain under Kenneth Kaunda in 1964; Mozambique, along with other former Portuguese colonies in Africa, did so in 1975. In 1968, Mr. Ahtisaari married Eeva Hyvarinen, a secondary-school teacher, with whom he had a son, Marko. They survive him.

The United Nations appointed Mr. Ahtissari commissioner and special representative to Namibia in 1977, beginning the long and tangled trail that led to the country’s independence 13 years later. In 1991, he took over as head of Finland’s Foreign Ministry. As war raged in the former Yugoslavia, he became chairman of an international panel focusing on bringing peace to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

While he had spent most of his career as a diplomat, he entered the political fray in 1994, when he was elected as Finland’s President, serving a single six-year term. A strong supporter of the European Union, he oversaw his country’s entry into the bloc in 1995, months after Finnish voters had approved membership in a referendum.

Up until the election campaign, his political reputation had been unsullied. But, as he sought the presidency on behalf of the Social Democratic Party, Mr. Ahtisaari faced — and denied — critics’ assertions that he had struggled with alcohol abuse and had taken a double salary from the Finnish foreign ministry and the United Nations for his mediation efforts in Bosnia.

Even as president, he continued as a peacemaker, negotiating to end fighting in Kosovo in 1999.

After he stepped down as president, Mr. Ahtisaari he founded the nonprofit Crisis Management Initiative, which helped promote peace in the Indonesian province of Aceh, where, for 29 years, insurgents from the Free Aceh Movement fought for independence from the government in Jakarta.

Under a peace treaty signed in Helsinki, the Finnish capital, in 2005, the rebels agreed to drop their demands for full independence in the province, which has vast reserves of oil, natural gas, timber and minerals, and settle for broad autonomy in return for the withdrawal of some Indonesian security forces.

While previous peace efforts had failed, the overwhelming impetus for a settlement came finally from an unlikely quarter when the tsunami of December 2004 devastated Aceh province, killing 170,000 people, making 500,000 homeless and prompting the combatants to return to negotiations.

Despite his somewhat stern appearance, Mr. Ahtissari was known for some idiosyncratic behavior. Such was his love of his land’s favored form of relaxation, for instance, that he sometimes invited aides to continue their deliberations in the sauna.

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