Professor Christof Heyns: A giant in human rights education

The monumental contribution that Professor Christof Heyns has made to advance human rights in Africa and beyond emerged this week from a memorial Facebook page created to honour the former director of the Centre for Human Rights, which is part of the faculty of law, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

The 62-year-old Heyns died on 29 March while on a hike near Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Heyns was the director of the Centre for Human Rights from 1999 to 2006, the dean of the faculty of law at the University of Pretoria (UP) from 2007 to 2010 and thereafter became the founding co-director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa at UP.

He was also the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions from 2010 to 2016 and was a member of the UN Human Rights Committee from 2017 to 2020.

In a statement, the faculty of law said he played a pioneering role in positioning the Centre for Human Rights as a Pan-African Centre of Excellence.

The centre’s logo, Africa as a butterfly, which was Heyns’ idea, signified his approach to human rights: namely, that a minor or seemingly insignificant change or action can have momentous or consequential outcomes.

Describing Heyns as a hero, intellectual and humanist, Sègnonna Horace Adjolohoun, the principal legal officer of the African Court on Human and People’s Rights, said on the Facebook page a foundation should be set up in Heyns’ name as he deserved a tribute that would “resonate beyond Pretoria and its academic institutions and impact the entire continent, beyond books, seminars, awards”.

According to a post by Kutaka Togbah of the Human Rights Protection Division of the Ministry of Justice in Liberia, Heyns spent his life “impacting the world through the promotion of human rights”.

Omer Kalameu, a senior human rights advisor at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Madagascar, echoes this sentiment, saying Heyns was the “pioneer of human rights course, training and research in Africa”.

Inspiring a generation

With initiatives such as the African Human Rights Moot Court Competition which, in 2021 celebrates 30 years; the Nelson Mandela World Human Rights Moot Court Competition; and the National Schools Moot Competition (which was later extended to countries beyond South Africa, under the aegis of the Global Campus of Human Rights), he inspired, taught and mentored a generation of human rights lawyers and activists on the continent.

Many former students wrote on the memorial Facebook entry about how he changed their lives.

Benjamin Ng’aru, from the East African Centre for Forced Migration and Displacement, stated that Heyns “inspired and shaped many of us in the continent” and that, as a lecturer, Heyns contributed to his passion for and interest in human rights.

Opeoluwa Ogundokum Badaru writes that she was a student at the UP centre in 2005. She writes: “My lasting memory of Professor Heyns was a class discussion about legal theory and human rights ... At the time, legal theory and jurisprudence was not my thing but an interest was sparked that day. A few years later, I would go on in my PhD dissertation to examine and write about different legal theories. Such was the impression that discussion had on me.”

In similar vein, Yvonne Masarakufa writes: “My human rights career was inspired by you.”

Lloyd Kuveya adds on the Facebook page that Heyns inspired many African law students to initiate their own [human rights] projects.

According to Zunaida Moosa Wadiwala’s post, Heyns had a “profound” impact on her as a teacher, lawyer and champion of human rights, and Nastasia Thebaud-Bouillon-Njenga describes him as “an exceptional professor, giant of human rights protection and such a kind-hearted human soul”.

Heyns initiated the centre’s Masters in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa programme, which is part of the Global Campus of Human Rights.

As a dean, he insisted on a greater focus on post-graduate studies and, in particular, doctoral studies at the faculty. He secured funding for full-time doctoral students, and made the faculty a magnet for talented prospective students from across the African continent, according to the faculty’s statement.

Heyns supervised doctoral candidates who are, in their own right, contributing to the field of law, including Thompson Chengeta, Waruguru Kaguongo, Zambian Judge Mumba Malila, Bernard Bekink, Henk Botha, Willem Gravett, Magnus Killander, Wessel le Roux, Frans Viljoen.

Academics pay tribute

Heyns was an internationalist and taught at the University of Oxford, at the American University in Washington, has been a Humboldt Fellow at Heidelberg University, a Fulbright Scholar at Yale Law School and a Fulbright Fellow at Harvard Law School.

Academics from these institutions and others across the world paid tribute to him from 29 March on the memorial page.

Dr Mesenbet Assefa, an assistant professor of law, at the Addis Ababa University, describes Heyns’ contribution to human rights as “immense”.

In his tribute, Hambyrajen Narsinghen, a lecturer in the department of law and management, University of Mauritius, says that he hopes that the legacy of Heyns will continue to influence the consolidation of human rights as a field.

“He has contributed a lot ... He was not only an outstanding academic, but imbued with humanity and a dedicated activist,” he wrote.

The University of Oxford’s department of continuing education has posted the following: “Many from around the world have been sharing their admiration of Christof as a great legal scholar, human rights champion, activist, dean, educator, and a deeply empathetic and warm character.

“He guided UN processes, innovated academic partnerships, carried many responsibilities and yet was always ready to encourage and exchange with others.”

United Nations rapporteur

As a special rapporteur for the UN, Heyns drew attention to issues such as the use of force by private security providers in the law enforcement contexts; the use of drones and autonomous weapons in armed conflict or counter-terrorism operations; and the role of forensic science in protecting the right to life. During 2016, he chaired the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi.

As a member of the Human Rights Committee, he was pivotal in the drafting of General Comment 37, the right of peaceful assembly (article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

His experience as UN special rapporteur drew him to explore and publish widely an area surprisingly neglected by legal academics – the ‘right to life’ and ‘freedom from violence’.

He also was a member of the Working Group on Death Penalty, Extra-Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings and Enforced Disappearances in Africa of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. He had been leading discussions at the level of the commission on how to curb the excessive use of police force in Africa.

One of his abiding passions was to better track and understand the actual effect of international human rights on the real lives of people.

This concern led him to devise a far-reaching study of the effect of the core United Nations human rights treaties in 20 UN member states, which culminated in the 2002 publication, together with colleague Professor Frans Viljoen, The impact of the United Nations human rights treaties at the domestic level.

Heyns was focusing on a follow-up study, which tracks the changes in impact over the subsequent 20 years. He was still preparing the results of this study, involving 20 country-based researchers or teams, for publication.

At a time when the African regional human rights system was largely unknown, he collected and published a number of volumes of texts and commentaries.

In this way, he breathed life into an almost non-existent field of academic study. The collection Compendium of key human rights documents of the African Union has served – and will still serve – as a source of reference to generations of students of African human rights law.

He was the co-founding editor of the African Human Rights Law Journal, which has been published since 2001. Second, together with faculty colleagues, he forged the Pretoria University Law Press (PULP) into being.

PULP has just published a landmark publication edited by Heyns and Professor Philip Alston, Sarah Knuckey, and Thomas Probert, Alston and Heyns on Unlawful Killings: A Compendium of the Jurisprudence of the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions from 2004-2016.

The Outlaws

Students and colleagues will remember Heyns as a member of the band, The Outlaws.

A former student, Tonderai Matanda, writes on Facebook that before he knew Heyns as an academic and UN rapporteur, he knew him as a ‘rock star’.

“Together with The Outlaws, he was one of my favourite features of the annual law faculty festival at UP. An avuncular figure giving a rendition of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in The Wall (part 2) so terrible that it was good ... couldn’t beat it ...

“And, at the end, he would declare that the show was over, because he had done all the songs he knows, but would promise to be there the next year ‘at the same place, same time, with the same songs’, and, every year, we would be there to cheer and dance to them. I am saddened to learn today of his passing … [he] was a good man, and he will be sorely missed.”

Heyns is survived by his wife, Fearika, children Adam, Renée and Willemien Rust and her husband, Arné, as well as his mother, Renée.