Christof Heyns: A tribute to a giant of human rights

This weekend, respected human rights lawyer Professor Christof Heyns passed away, aged 62.  

Most recently, Professor Heyns was the was the Director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa at the University of Pretoria, and had also served as United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions from 2010 to 2016. 

In his distinguished career, Professor Heyns worked closely with and inspired Amnesty International staff and volunteers around the world. Here, his friends and colleagues pay tribute to a giant of global human rights.

Dr. Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International, said: “Christof Heyns was a brilliant human rights lawyer and thinker, gentle person…He leaves behind such an extraordinary legacy.” 

Shenilla Mohamed, Executive Director of Amnesty International South Africa, said: “A mighty baobab has fallen! The untimely death of renowned human rights law expert, Professor Christof Heyns, is a devastating loss. In Africa the Baobab Tree is considered a symbol of power, longevity, presence, strength and grace. Professor Heyns was a baobab in the human rights world. A giant in his field, he fought hard for a just world. As Director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa, he was involved in a number of critical initiatives. His contributions included: Chair of the UN independent investigation on Burundi, leading on the drafting of UN human rights guidelines on peaceful assembly and the use of less lethal weapons. He also served as the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions. Hamba Kahle Professor Heyns, Ke a Leboga, Enkosi, Ngiyabonga, Thank you for your service to humanity. You have left indelible footprints and we salute you!”

Sam Dubberley, Amnesty International’s Head of Crisis Evidence Lab, said: “Christof's support for establishing a hub of Amnesty's Digital Verification Corps at the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria was unequivocal. He gave time, advice and space for this project to emerge, and welcomed the Amnesty team on every visit to Pretoria despite his always frantic schedule. Christof made everyone feel valued, and was a source of energy and sage advice. How he will be missed.” 

Netsanet Belay, Research and Advocacy Director of Amnesty International, said: “Words fail me to express the profound sense of loss with the sudden passing of Professor Heyns. Like many, I had the privilege of working with him and benefited much from his wisdom, mentorship and guidance. He was a rare breed, one of Africa’s great legal minds, a passionate human rights defender and a kind, passionate, humble person. He nurtured and cultivated a cadre of human rights experts and activists in Africa, including by transforming the human rights centre at the University of Pretoria into a world class institution that produced Africa’s leading human rights scholars and practitioners. His publications on various human rights issues in leading academic journals are testament to his brilliance, wisdom and dedication. He was a true pan-Africanist, as exemplified in his work to champion and strengthen the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. His passing is also a great loss to Amnesty International. As [recently] as last week we were working with Professor Heyns on the draft report by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the use of force by law enforcement officials in Africa. We shall strive to ensure his last vision [is seen] to fruition. Rest in peace dear brother!”

Rasha Abdul-Rahim, Director of Amnesty Tech, said: “It was devastating to hear of the passing of Professor Heyns. All my thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends. Not only was Christof a renowned human rights expert, he was fiercely justice-focused and an absolute joy and pleasure to work with. Christof wrote the seminal Human Rights Council report that put the human rights risks of autonomous weapons systems on the agenda. He was always extremely generous with his expertise and time. This is a huge loss for the human rights movement, and we will miss him deeply.” 

Avner Gidron, Senior Policy Adviser on Amnesty International’s Law and Policy Programme, said: “I worked most closely with Professor Heyns on The Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Death in 2016. It’s a practical tool for human rights defenders and advocates around the world seeking accountability for unlawful killings; and it is now a small, but important, part of Christof’s vast legacy. As well as his importance as a brilliant legal mind, scholar and activist, I will remember Christof for actually embodying human rights values: being an incredibly warm, generous and considerate human being. His death is a tremendous loss for the human rights movement, and an unimaginable tragedy for his family and friends.”

Simon Crowther, legal advisor at Amnesty International, said: “Christof was a legal giant who approached his work with kindness, humility, humour and immense intelligence. He will be greatly missed.” 

Anja Bienert, Senior Programme Officer at Amnesty International Netherlands, said: “I first met Christof in 2013 and immediately felt connected to him: his sharp mind, the careful and perfectly articulated thoughts on the many pressing human rights issues, but more importantly, his warm and welcoming personality, with whom it was a pleasure to discuss. Since then, he was an ongoing source of inspiration to me and a great ally in the fight for greater protection of human rights. He constantly strove not just to write excellent publications, but to have a real impact for the respect of human rights across the world. We will miss him incredibly. It will be our mission to uphold his great legacy in the field of human rights.”

Jan Wetzel, senior legal advisor at Amnesty International, said: “Christof Heyns was extremely open and welcoming in engaging with civil society in the improvement of human rights standards. At the same time, he rigorously challenged NGOs, including Amnesty, to ensure that our advocacy was firmly based on international law.”

Hilary Power, Amnesty International’s Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, said: “It is hard to find words to express the profound sadness we all feel at the loss not only of a brilliant human rights scholar, lawyer and activist, but a kind and gentle soul with immense warmth, dedication and a great sense of humour. His ability to achieve human rights impact was a result not only of his academic excellence and strategic thinking, but his ability to connect and empathise with people. A teacher and mentor to so many of us, he touched so many lives and will be so incredibly missed. I send my deepest condolences to his family.”

Solomon Sacco, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Law and Policy Programme, said: “Professor Christof was an stunningly warm, kind and generous man, whose conceptual and radical approach to human rights has stayed with me since I first heard him lecture at the University of Pretoria more than 15 years ago. In addition to being a passionate and strong defender of human rights, he was an engaging and generous man who remembered and listened to his students whenever he met them. The world has lost a great spirit.”

Oluwatosin Popoola, Legal Adviser at Amnesty International, said: "Professor Christof Heyns was a very kind, helpful and welcoming man. His death is a great loss to the world and the international human rights system. May his soul rest in peace and his family have the fortitude to bear the loss."