OSLO, Norway - Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari won the Nobel Peace Prize Friday, but this year the news was as much about who didn't get the award.
Critics say the secretive, five-member panel missed a golden opportunity to reward Chinese dissidents and highlight human rights abuses in China in the year Beijing basked in the glory of the Olympic Games.
"It is an opportunity missed to change the world for the better by encouraging reform in China," said Edward McMillan-Scott, a British member of the European Parliament and founder of its group to promote democracy and human rights. He nominated two Chinese dissidents who had been considered front-runners for the prize.
This year is also the 60th anniversary of the signing of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which helped fuel speculation the award might honor dissidents, particularly ones from China, Russia or Vietnam.
By selecting Ahtisaari, 71, a seasoned conflict mediator, the Norwegian award committee returned to honoring traditional peace work after years where they recognized accomplishments in economics and safeguarding the environment.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee said it honored Ahtisaari for important efforts over more than three decades to resolve conflicts in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
"He is a world champion when it comes to peace and he never gives up," said Ole Danbolt Mjoes, the chairman of the peace prize committee, which is appointed by the Norwegian Parliament.
Ahtisaari had been mentioned in speculation as a possible Nobel Peace Prize candidate since 2005, just after he negotiated an end to a conflict between the Indonesian government and separatist guerrillas in Aceh.
"Often, the prize has been awarded to parties involved in a conflict, and then possibly also to mediators in conjunction," he said. "But, of course, if this (mediation) was the awarding criterion, then my chances increased quite considerably. In the end, I had very few competitors in this category."
His selection out of 197 nominees comes a year after former Vice President Al Gore and the U.N. panel on climate change received the award following the selection of anti-poverty activist and microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus in 2006.
Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and AIDS and environmental activist Hu Jia, who were nominated by McMillan-Scott, were seen as favorites along with Russia's Lidia Yusupova, Vietnam's Thich Quang Do or the group Human Rights Watch.
News that the two Chinese dissidents were being considered brought a harsh warning from Beijing, which declared Tuesday that Hu was not a legitimate contender.
"If the prize is awarded to such a person it would be against the purpose of such a prize," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.
While Ahtisaari was widely praised as worthy of the $1.4 million prize, some observers said honoring Gao or Hu would have had more impact on what's happening in the world now.
"The Nobel committee can give the award to honor long and faithful service, but it can also give it as encouragement, to affect a current situation or process," said Anna Ek, president of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society.
Hu began by campaigning for the rights of HIV/AIDS patients, but became a brash human rights activist chronicling the arrests and harassment of others until he was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison in April.
Mjoes dismissed criticism that the panel bowed to any form of pressure from China.
"What we wanted to do today was to put peace mediators on the agenda," he said. "The Nobel committee doesn't ever back down."
He recalled similar threats from other countries, including China's upset at the decision to give the prize to the Dalai Lama in 1989.
Mjoes said the tradition of defying world powers stretches back to the 1935 award to German pacifist and Nazi critic Carl von Ossietzky. That honor so enraged Hitler that he barred any German from ever accepting any of the Nobels.
Speculation about the Chinese was mainly based on guesses by Norwegian Nobel-watcher Stein Toennesson, since this year virtually no one else was making their predictions public.
"He deserves it," Toennesson told AP, noting that once a candidate has been on his list several years, he stops talking about them.
Ahtisaari was a senior Finnish diplomat when in 1977 he was named the U.N. envoy for Namibia, where guerrillas were battling South African apartheid rule. He later rose to undersecretary-general, and in 1988 was dispatched to Namibia to lead 8,000 U.N. peacekeepers during its transition to independence.
He was chairman of the Bosnia-Herzegovina working group in the international peace conference on former Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1993, and was special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general on former Yugoslavia in 1993.
Serbia bitterly rejected his attempts to forge a compromise settlement on Kosovo, which declared independence in February, but his blueprint forms the essence of Kosovo's constitution.
Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci hailed the Nobel selection as "the right decision for the right man.