Robert Donia (Ph.D. ’76) has spent much of his life as an advocate for human rights, particularly in southeastern Europe. He’s a scholar and historian of the region of the former Yugoslavia. Donia has also been called as an expert historical witness in the trial of former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević and fourteen other war crimes trials at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
Donia first became interested in Yugoslavia during an exchange program as an undergraduate student at Hope College. After a three-year stint in the Army, Donia’s fascination with the region grew, and he came to the University of Michigan to pursue his Ph.D., writing his doctoral dissertation on the history of Bosnia. After graduation, he began working at Merrill Lynch. While he was there, in early 1990’s, Yugoslavia fell into war, disintegrated, with terrible atrocities occurring in the process.
“After the war started, I saw a lot of the destruction and human carnage that the war wrought,” says Donia. “I became interested in trying to do something to alleviate the horrors of the war—or at least limit them.”
As Donia’s attention was drawn to human-rights abuses in the region, he realized that he could use his specialized knowledge of its people and history to help. That led to his expert testimony at The Hague, where he gave the ICTY important background information about the region and sketched its history in cases against Slobodan Milošević and others. Donia has also written numerous articles and several books, including Sarajevo: A Biography and Radovan Karadžič: Architect of the Bosnian Genocide.
The Future of Human Rights
At the University of Michigan, Donia taught courses as a visiting professor on Yugoslavia and international human rights. He also established a professorship in the Department of History named not after himself, but after a man he admired and only met once: disaster relief worker Fred Cuny.
“I met Fred in 1995 at an airport,” says Donia. “He was involved in a project to restore water service to the city of Sarajevo. He wanted to use his engineering skills to support humanitarian relief for people in war situations.”
Tragically, Cuny was killed by a rebel group in Chechnya in 1997 while helping deliver humanitarian aid and services in that war-torn state. Donia decided to honor his memory through the creation of the Fred Cuny Professorship in the History of Human Rights.
“Cuny died as a martyr for human rights and humanitarian aid,” says Donia. “He struck me as the kind of person who was a model for the human-rights movement, and therefore a worthy person to name the chair after.”
The Cuny Professorship, now held by Professor Pamela Ballinger, is intended to be an important source of research, teaching, and scholarship on international human rights at U-M.
“In meeting the challenge of human rights since the turn of the 21st century, whether in scholarship, politics, public policy, or international justice, Bob Donia has been a beacon of patient, constructive, and visionary labor,” says Professor Geoff Eley, who served as chair of the Department of History at the time the Cuny Professorship was created.
Donia and his wife, Jane Ritter, have also given significant support to the Human Rights Program at U-M throughout the years. In fact, the pair was essential in elevating the Human Rights Initiative in the International Institute to the level of “program.”
Today, their support has expanded even further with the establishment of the Robert and Jane Donia Fund for Human Rights, which will support the Donia Human Rights Center. The Donia Center will further expand possibilities for the program in the future, providing support for activities, fellowships, scholarships, and research projects for students and faculty across all disciplines, focused on human rights.
“Dr. Donia is world-renowned as a historian of human rights and as an expert witness at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and his generosity will boost an already impressive Human Rights Program,” says Richard Ashby Wilson, a professor of law and anthropology and the Gladstein Chair of Human Rights at the University of Connecticut School of Law. “I applaud U-M’s efforts to expand its Human Rights Program. This is a growing area of scholarly interest and university teaching, and Michigan has special expertise in numerous fields of inquiry.”
Donia himself believes the Human Rights Program serves several important roles at the University, the first of which is to bring together the plethora of faculty members on campus working in the field of human rights.
“Our faculty in human rights are scattered across departments and fields,” he says. “The greatest need we have is to promote interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration on projects and scholarship so that the great resources of U-M keep human rights front and center.”
In addition, Donia emphasizes the important role of the program in developing students’ interest in the field, since they are the next generation of scholars, activists, and decision makers. He also looks forward to the center continuing to bring important figures in human rights to the University, such as Jody Williams, the Nobel Prize recipient who visited campus last year.
As for the specifics, Donia envisions the center as empowering faculty members, such as Kiyoteru Tsutsui, the director of the Human Rights Program, to guide the center’s programs and growth in the future.
“Under the leadership of Professor Tsutsui, the program has been great at bringing influential people to campus,” says Donia. “We are happy to bestow trust and resources on faculty members to use them for purposes that will benefit the educational mission of the University.”