In Memory of Professor Christof Heyns (1959-2021)

All at CGHR were immensely saddened to learn over the weekend of the sudden passing of Professor Christof Heyns.  

A thoughtful scholar of the African human rights system, an incredibly popular teacher of the next many generations of human rights activists, and a universally-respected and impactful UN human rights expert, Professor Heyns’ untimely death has shocked friends and colleagues around the world.  

For us at CGHR, Christof was a founding figure. As Dean of the Faculty of Law and former director of the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, he travelled to Cambridge for the Centre’s inauguration in 2009 and there began our first institutional collaboration. We began a period of student exchanges, shared teaching and research collaboration, supported by the David and Elaine Potter Foundation. It was a happy coincidence that CGHR’s inauguration happened alongside Christof’s appointment as UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, a role dedicated to focusing upon the protection of the right to life. This became a natural focus for our collaboration over the coming six-year mandate.  

During his time as Special Rapporteur, Christof produced landmark reports on some of the core topics of the mandate such as the death penalty and the use of force both by the police and in situations of armed conflict, as well as ground-breaking reports on the safety of journalists, the risks of autonomous weapons systems and the potential of new communications technology for fact-finding. He conducted country-missions to states facing a variety of different challenges, including to India, Mexico, Ukraine and Papua New Guinea.  

Scholars and students at CGHR were delighted to able to contribute to the constantly participatory way in which Christof undertook his work as a mandate-holder, convening a number of expert meetings in Cambridge and with students undertaking a number of research reports exploring some of the complex and challenging themes he sought to clarify in his reports to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly. One of the first students to collaborate in one of these projects, Dr. Thomas Probert, subsequently became a longstanding and close colleague of Christof while maintaining strong links with CGHR. 

Though he contributed much to the clarification of the norms around many of the themes of his mandate, Christof was firmly convinced that the challenge was not usually a disagreement about the norms but rather a lack of clarity about the facts on the ground.  With that in mind one of the long-term focuses of his time as mandate-holder was the updating of the Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Death, a process involving more than 150 technical and legal experts from around the world. 

The same consultative and collaborative approach suffused his subsequent work, including his stewardship of UN Human Rights Committee’s drafting process for its recent General Comment No.37 on the right of peaceful assembly. Always wanting to explore the difficult questions about human rights’ meaning and implementation in contemporary realities, Christof was sure of the need to consider the implications of the right of peaceful assembly online, and brought together a diverse group of experts for both a technical and philosophical exchange at CGHR in late-2019. 

Christof was passionate about the contribution that regional human rights mechanisms could play as part of the international system, and was always an advocate for engagement with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, working with them from 2013-2015 as they developed their General Comment on the right to life. More recently, as a member of its Working Group on the Death Penalty and Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings and Enforced Disappearances in Africa, he had been working with them on the early phases of a comprehensive study of the use of force by the police in Africa. 

Another common thread of Christof’s engagement with international affairs was his belief in the vital role that young people and human rights education can and must play in the advancement of rights. From the commitment to human rights mooting (both among schoolchildren with the National Schools Moot in South Africa and among university students with the development of the Nelson Mandela World Human Rights Moot), to his pursuit of masters and doctoral exchange programmes, Christof was a constantly supportive advocate and resource for his current and former students. 

Partly as a result of the consultative and collaborative approach that he took to the already highly internationalised work of human rights, but also as a result of his incredibly extensive and memorable teaching around the world, Christof Heyns will be sorely missed by many in a wide range of different contexts. 

The thoughts of us all are with his family, his close colleagues and friends at the University of Pretoria and the United Nations, and the thousands of human rights scholars and activists whose lives he touched, and who will all feel this loss in a personal way. 

Sharath Srinivasan, Ella McPherson & Thomas Probert, on behalf of all at CGHR 

Christof’s collaboration with CGHR created opportunities for many of our students to get involved in research projects informing his OHCHR work. Here are tributes from some of these students: 

‘In addition to his invaluable work, the Declarations Podcast team and I were grateful to have the chance to have a frank conversation with Professor Heyns around the effectiveness of IHRL as “gravitational pull” on states towards regulating autonomous weapons, in particular. His deeply considerate and concerned engagement with fellow CGHR students, and the honesty with which he acknowledged the limits of, and yet pragmatically worked through the framework, left an impression with us all. My deepest condolences to everyone who knew him and worked with him.’ 

— Matt Mahmoudi

‘Not only did he create opportunities for a wide swathe of people in the human rights space, but the questions he asked shaped many of our own paths. I would not have the same degree or career trajectory (looking at information rights of underserved communities) without the project he helped spearhead around ICTs and the Right to Life.’

— Rebekah Larsen

‘In the brief time that I spent with Christof at the conference last year, I found him to be an incredibly kind man. Although we had assembled a high-level meeting to discuss freedom of assembly online with experts across the field, he treated all of us alike — whether old friend, professional specialist or student. The equal worth he attributed to each of us was accompanied by a consideration of all ideas put before him, an openness that is rare and highly valuable. I’m sure that he will be deeply missed.’ 

— Eleanor Salter