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Former teacher wins Nobel Peace Prize

published 16 January 2009 updated 16 January 2009

Martti Ahtisaari has travelled a long way from the classroom in Oulu, Finland, where he began his career half a century ago. From primary school teacher to distinguished diplomat, President of Finland, and now Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ahtisaari has always raised his voice for education, human rights and peace.

Ahtisaari qualified as a primary-school teacher in 1959, and right away began reaching out across cultural boundaries to help manage a home and school for Pakistani students. He began working for the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs in the mid-1960s, was appointed Ambassador to Tanzania, Zambia, Somalia and Mozambique in the early 1970s and, by the end of the decade, was made UN Commissioner for Namibia. He served as the President of Finland from 1994-2000. Ahtisaari was awarded the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize for his work as a mediator in Namibia, the former Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, Iraq, Kosovo, Indonesia and other international conflicts over three decades. Sometimes peace negotiations are as broad as they are long. For example, Ahtisaari was at the helm of the Namibian independence process for 13 years. In 1990 he finally succeeded in leading Namibia into independence as the commander of 8,000 UN soldiers and civilians. He and his wife Eeva were made honorary citizens, and many Namibian boys are still named Martti in honour of the independence negotiator. Sometimes things move more quickly. The negotiations Ahtisaari brokered between the Aceh independence movement and the Indonesian government were completed in just six months in 2005. The outcome was an end to the civil war that had been raging for over 30 years. He says a mediator, like a teacher, needs delicacy and directness, analytical skills and decision-making competence. He or she must learn to talk about difficult matters in a friendly tone. And as a teacher, Ahtisaari also knows that repetition is the mother of learning. “Peace negotiation is a teaching process in which you have to present your arguments so effectively that they are accepted. You have to convince the parties that this solution is worth supporting,” he says. In Ahtisaari’s opinion, developing education is the key to progress. Given the opportunity to learn, people achieve wonderful things, he says. And in a rapidly changing society, the role of the teacher becomes increasingly important. Ahtisaari’s greatest worry is that in the next 10 years more than a billion young people will reach working age and barely a third of them will be able to find jobs. “If these young people fail to enter the job market, the danger of radicalisation would be acute.” That’s why he is engaged in developing employment opportunities for young people through his Crisis Management Initiative, CMI. With age, this architect of peace has learned to live at peace with himself, and with the people close to him. “You get on in the world when you have self-confidence,” he advises. “Inspire, support, encourage—these are also the teacher’s most important tasks.” By Tiina Tikkanen, with files from Ritva Semi and Airi Vuolle Published with permission from Opettaja, the journal of The Trade Union of Education in Finland (OAJ).

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 28, December 2008.