Called to be an expert witness in the trials following the
Bosnian war of the 1990s, Robert Donia has testified against seven
Serbian and Croatian war criminals at The Hague during the past six
The University alum brought his experiences on how history can
be used or abused in international law yesterday as the annual
DeRoy Visiting Professor in Honors speaker.
Donia ended up testifying at the International Criminal Tribunal
for the Former Yugoslavia through a series of coincidental
Hailed as one of the most significant challenges facing
international law in recent history, the Netherlands-based ICTY
aims to prosecute those responsible for violating international law
during the Bosnian war, including Slobodan Milosevic, the former
president of Yugoslavia.
Serving as an expert witness for the prosecution, Donia
testified against Serbian and Croatian criminals charged with
genocide, murder and other war crimes.
The uniqueness of his position is that since all of the trials
were successfully appealed, the focus of the trial would be factual
evidence while the appeal would be based on the more specific
points of international law.
Given Donia’s background as a leading historian of the region,
his work centered on testifying in the actual trial rather than the
“If historians and lawyers were lined up on opposite ends of the
field, John Madden could say these teams don’t like each other,” he
Expert witnesses for the defense would often omit certain pieces
of fact, Donia added.
They would attempt to legitimize the Bosnian war by arguing
Serbia and Croatia’s claims to the area have been longstanding and
that Bosnia and Herzegovina was and still is part of medieval
Another defense argument was that the Balkan people as a whole
were “inherently incapable of possessing superior organizational
skills,” based on the argument that while fast food was prominent
in Western Europe and America, food preparation takes much longer
in the Balkans.
“I think it’s somewhat unexpected that history is such a part of
international law trials. It seems peculiar that he is testifying
at the war crimes tribunal,” Law School student Scott Risner
While many war criminals have been tried and sentenced to prison
terms, the trial is moving along at what Donia calls a “glacial
“I thought it was very interesting how (the war criminals) are
afforded all the rights of American citizens in the trial. How long
it’s been going on is insane,” LSA freshman Allison Kimmel
Donia was drawn to studying the Balkans by “just a series of
coincidences. I arrived as a graduate student (at the University)
about five days after coming back from Vietnam and wanted to learn
the history of an area no one was particularly interested in.”
Donia said he fell in with a group of like-minded individuals
and eventually wrote his dissertation in 1976 on Islam in Bosnia
It was not until 1997, however, that Donia’s knowledge came
under the eyes of the tribunal at The Hague.
“I was invited based on the academic work I’d done 15 to 20
years before 1997,” he said.
Donia was invited to speak at the University by Prof. Stephen
Darwall, director of the LSA Honors Program.
“He came to our attention as both someone with a University of
Michigan connection and as someone with experience in human rights
in international law and history,” Darwall said.
“The very existence of the court is a very interesting
phenomenon. The workings of international law are something
Americans have become more sensitive to in the past 10 to 15