Nobel Peace Laureate 2008 Martti Ahtisaari speaks to MA Convergent Journalism student Kunal Majumder about his inspiration in life, qualities of a peacemaker and India’s role in global politics.

Mr President, taking a cue from the proposition that the child is father to the man, tell us a little about your formative years. Specifically, what were the lessons you learnt in childhood that you believe have helped make you the person you are today?

Very early in my life I became a displaced person, when my family moved from Viipuri, my birthplace [now Vyborg, Russia; annexed from Finland by the Soviet Union during WWII], with 400,000 Karelians. My mother and I moved from one house to another
in Finland – staying first with relatives, later with total strangers.

Fortunately, we were treated extremely well. I realised then how much someone in such a situation is at the mercy of others. In my case it was a positive experience; not everyone is as fortunate. That experience deeply influenced my international career.

I was also very lucky that opportunity knocked when it did. I got my chance. I’m not someone who has unique capabilities as a peacemaker; there are many others who may be more capable, but whether they get the opportunity is the real issue.

I’ve met and worked with extremely competent people in my life. I admire professionalism, whether in a journalist or my driver or the carpenter who helps out in my summer house. I admire people who know what they are doing.

How did the fact that your father served in the Continuation War with the Soviets, and you yourself served in the army, influence your attitudes towards war, and therefore, towards peace?

My father was a military technician. I learnt much from him, but not as a military man. He was a religious man and a sportsman in his younger days – a fairly good runner. He was a kind man; a soft-spoken man. I do not think he particularly loved the armed forces;
I do not think he would have ever said, ‘Please join the army’.

I, like most young people in Finland, did my compulsory military service. That was a natural choice. When I was running for president, my son said that he would like to choose the civilian alternative in national service. I defended his right, as it was a constitutional and legal right.

Of course, I was criticized – ‘How can you become president when your son doesn’t want to do his military service?’ But I defended his right. Actually, I enjoyed defending his right. There is nothing wrong with his values; he will defend his country in some manner or the other, not necessarily as a soldier. He is an IT specialist, so he has many other avenues to serve his country.

Then, of course, as president, I became the commander-in-chief of my country’s armed forces. I am very proud of our military, it has been involved in several UN peacekeeping operations, on all continents – it’s difficult to find a national army that has played a bigger role in peacekeeping.

Unfortunately, I have also come to recognise that sometimes you require force. For instance there is now a clause accepted by the UN General Assembly, which is not binding, but says that if a dictator treats his people wrongly, the international community has a responsibility to intervene. It’s much better than talking about humanitarian intervention. Sometimes, you have to do that.

Looking back at the course of your life, is there one particular person who created the biggest impression on you in terms of the individual you became and the career path you chose?

I’m not terribly impressed by people in politics. Ordinary people are more important than political leaders. But there is one person in the world that I consider as being closest to a saint – President Mandela.

I had read about him when he was in prison for 27 years; I came to know him when he was released. We talked about common friends who were in jail with him. The most remarkable thing was that there was no bitterness against those who kept him in jail; he even invited his jailors to his inauguration, which I attended.

I do not think he wanted to humiliate them; there was a human bond that had developed somehow. Of all the people in the world, he stands the tallest.

What are the essential qualities of a peacemaker?

There is no particular qualification as such. I think you need an enormous amount of patience. You also need to have sound strategic sense – in a way, peacemaking is also about strategic planning; a peacemaker must have an idea what the end-result is going to be.

People tend to forget that there is a historical context to every conflict and very often the path to peace is known from the beginning. In Namibia, for example, it was that South Africa had to go, elections organised and independence would follow. In Ache (Indonesia), it was the offer by the government of special autonomy; whether those who were fighting for independence would accept the offer – that was the whole exercise.

In Kosovo, it was clear from the beginning that Mr Milosevic and company had done wrong; the return of Kosovo to Serbia was not a viable option, so independence was the way forward. Also, you have to realise that you can’t resolve everything through peace negotiations – you have to concentrate on the essence of the conflict and look to create a framework in which other issues can be resolved.

Patience and perseverance are essential. We Finns say that we in this country have stamina, strength of will; we call it sisu, and it is very handy. It is also very important that you be an honest broker. For me, it is most important that the outcome I am negotiating is something that I can personally accept.

President Obama took office in the US this January. The world seems to expect much of him – perhaps too much. According to you, how different will Obama’s world be from that of his predecessor, President Bush?

First, Obama’s victory speaks well of America. I lived there for many years when I worked with the UN; I have always argued that Americans, as a society, have the capacity to correct their mistakes. If they go in one direction and people feel that they need to change course, they do. President Obama’s victory in the elections was remarkable in many ways – how he was able to inspire the younger generation was remarkable.

I think the major problem is that we now see an almost messianic hope – that this is a man who can resolve all our issues. I don’t think anyone in their right mind will envy the president in his task! But I think he has started well. He moved fast with the formation of his cabinet. He has done the right things. He is trying to tackle the economic crisis. His vice president made the first major foreign policy statement, which was reassuring.

I would hope that President Obama is prepared to work with rest of the world. And that the US is always prepared to listen to their friends and collaborators. For instance, that they would want inputs from Europe on places like Afghanistan, where we have realised that seeking a military solution is not the right way. You will need a military presence there to facilitate a civilian solution. These are complicated things. However, the important thing is their openness. The same way they declared that they are open to talk to Iran. That is very reassuring.

President Zardari recently declared that Taliban is trying to overrun Pakistan. What is your assessment of the situation there?

I have only seen the comments made by the Pakistan government. There have been attempts to calm the situation in the region and I hope it actually happens. It has very much to do with the situation in Afghanistan. My feeling has always been that you have to address all the issues at the same time – Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and relations with Iran – in order for the overall situation to calm down. However, the priority to my mind has always been the Middle East issue, the Israel-Palestine conflict. If we cannot solve that, it will vitiate the atmosphere in other places.

Looking at conditions in the subcontinent today, what role do you see India playing in global politics in the coming years?

India has always played an important role in global politics. Addressing both India and Pakistan, I would say it is high time to resolve the Kashmir issue, so that it can be removed from the relationship. My attitude towards frozen conflicts is very negative.

When I was dealing with Kosovo, some of my diplomatic friends asked me why I was in a hurry. ‘Why can’t we have frozen conflicts in Kosovo as we have in Cyprus and the Middle East?’ they argued. I said that I’m not in the business of creating more frozen conflicts.

On the contrary, I think we should all try to solve all those conflicts. I do not think it is impossible. No one can convince me that Kashmir is beyond solution. And I don’t think you need outsiders. Neighbours go through difficult times, but have to live together. The unfortunate events in Mumbai have further complicated the matter. But if things are handled in the way we see now, perhaps it will make for a better relationship.

You are referring to India’s reaction after the Mumbai terrorist attack of November 26, 2008? How would you assess that reaction and what advice would you give the Indian government?

I have really admired the way India has handled that most unfortunate incident in Mumbai. I think its behaviour has been very statesman-like. I have nothing to advise the Indian Government. It was very important that they provided the facts; now it is up to
Pakistan to clarify the situation and to see that this sort of things is not repeated. The Indian government’s reaction has been exemplary.

Lastly, again referring to your Nobel Prize acceptance speech, you emphasised the need for more humanitarian assistance and investment in poorer countries You said, “A reduction in foreign assistance and investment would be disastrous for badly needed economic growth … Hundreds of millions of young people will be out of work in countries that are in early stages of development. If nothing is done, such places will become breeding grounds for crime, instability and war”.
Could you elaborate on this thought please?

If you are a young man in your teens, growing up in surroundings, where you can’t find any decent work and often no work at all, you become easy prey for criminal elements. I appeal to developed nations to keep their promises for financial assistance. Even in places where there are problems in governance, like Africa, the situation is improving. Some countries are now doing relatively well.

I’m delighted when I look at the index developed by Harvard University। Last year, Namibia was among the six best sub-Saharan countries. We can achieve big things. Perhaps we need to be optimists – realists, but optimists!

I’m involved in the Middle East and in North Africa (Doha) through a foundation. The idea is to improve the employment possibilities of young people. Behind this is the recognition that in the next decade we will have at least 1.2 billion men and women under the age of thirty, looking for work. With traditional means maybe we can employ 30,000.
So what do we do with nearly a billion?

I think we have to be hopeful for people. It is vital that we analyse how economies are developing in different countries – will there be employment opportunities for the future? Then focus on proper education. Seek to develop as many entrepreneurs as possible. There should be no problems with micro credit. This is important and I’m working with people who can do this. If young people don’t feel a sense of hope, criminal and terrorists are the best recruiters. We have to fight poverty – that’s my basic message.

© M 2009
Picture courtesy: Mikko Koivumaa