Professorship to honor international humanitarian*

Fred Cuny, a civil engineer and internationally acclaimed disaster relief specialist from Texas, was killed in 1995 in Chechnya while trying to arrange medical aid and the evacuation of 40,000 victims of the war between Russia and the Chechens.

“He was a big Texan with a soft voice, who was both an idealist and a pragmatist,” says Robert Donia, a research associate with the Center for Russian and East European Studies, who met Cuny while working as a wartime historian of Bosnia-Hercegovina and attempting to re-establish links with scholars in Sarajevo. “Of all the people I have encountered, Fred best embodied the values of human rights and international humanitarianism.”

To honor Cuny’s legacy, Donia and his wife, Jane Ritter, have donated $2.5 million to establish the Fred Cuny Professorship in the History of Human Rights in the Department of History in LSA. The professorship will focus on the origins, institutions and practices of the international humanitarianism and human rights that have emerged in the 20th century. It will include the examination of violations of human rights, remedies and mechanisms to deter future abuse, particularly in Southeast Europe.

Donia is the author of numerous books about the area including “Sarajevo: A Biography” and “Islam Under The Double Eagle: The Muslims of Bosnia and Hercegovina, 1878-1914.” He also is a retired vice president at Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc.

Although Donia met Cuny only once in the bunkered waiting room of the Sarajevo airport during the Bosnian war in 1994, Cuny made a lasting impression.

Cuny was deeply immersed in the humanitarian crisis in Bosnia. The chance meeting led to Donia’s appreciation of Cuny’s tireless efforts to relieve suffering and civil rights abuses in Biafra, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia with practical acts such as building roads, improving drainage systems and fortifying houses against earthquakes.

Cuny’s largest achievement was the design and installation of a water filtration system in besieged Sarajevo, made of huge modules that could be unloaded from a United Nations transport plane in a matter of minutes to avoid Serbian sniper fire. He installed the filtration system in three protected locations, including a tunnel just above the river running through the city. The system produced filtered river water to the city’s 250,000 residents, helping to sustain them through some of the greatest deprivation and heaviest shelling of the war.

“Fred’s legacy brings to life the dangers and dilemmas faced by the human rights movement, and we hope his example will inspire others, as it has us, for generations to come,” Donia says. “He is an inspiration whether someone is approaching the study of human rights from law, political science or history.”

LSA Dean Terrence McDonald says Donia and Ritter’s gift will ensure that future generations of scholars will be able to examine the importance of human rights throughout the world and the political and social challenges that threaten them.

“The creation of the Fred Cuny Professorship will bring the legacy of this great humanitarian to life for future scholars and serve as an example of the power of idealism and practical action in the preservation of human rights,” McDonald says. “We want to thank Bob Donia and Jane Ritter for their generous gift, which will help to guarantee that the study of human rights remains a high priority at U-M.”

The Donia-Ritter gift advances U-M’s $2.5 billion Michigan Difference campaign, which achieved its goal in June 2007. The campaign continues through Dec. 31.

*By Maryanne George – LSA Communications