Human rights activist Professor Christof Heyns. Picture: United Nations
Human rights activist Professor Christof Heyns. Picture: United Nations

Tributes pour in after death of human rights activist Christof Heyns

By Zelda Venter Time of article published Mar 29, 2021

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Pretoria - Tributes are pouring in following the death of well known human rights activist Professor Christof Heyns.

He passed away on Sunday morning, apparently due to a heart attack.

The Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, where Heyns was the previous director, said in a tribute that it mourns his passing.

Heyns, 62, was also a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

In praising the legal giant, the university said it is with great shock and sadness that the faculty of law has received the news of the passing of the internationally esteemed Heyns.

Professor Frans Viloen, director at the university’s Centre for Human Rights, said Heyns’s death is an incredible loss and that he will be deeply missed by the university as well as many others across the world.

“Christof was a deeply moral man. His life was one of consequence and meaning, in which he used his considerable talents and energy to change ‘human wrongs’ into ‘human rights’ wherever he could,” Viljoen said.

The centre said that to them, Heyns was a founding father, a trail-blazer, and a constant source of inspiration and encouragement.

“He was our initiator-in-chief. He played a pioneering role in positioning the centre as a pan-African centre of excellence. Constantly brimming with new ideas and grand schemes, plans and projects, he propelled the centre into new directions and challenged it to explore different dimensions.”

It is said that to Heyns, if something could be conceived, it could be achieved. Among these initiatives are landmark events that will be there for many years to come, including the African Human Rights Moot Court Competition, which in 2021 celebrates 35 years; the Nelson Mandela World Human Rights Moot Court Competition and the National Schools Moot Competition.

Heyns was the Director of the Centre for Human Rights from 1999 to 2006. He was Dean of the Faculty of Law from 2007 to 2010.

After stepping down as Dean, he became the founding director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa at the University of Pretoria.

He was United Nations 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 each of these positions, he made significant and original and long-lasting contributions.

As Dean of the Faculty, 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.

As Special Rapporteur, he drew attention to cutting-edge 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 an academic, he was recognised internationally as a leading expert in the field of international human rights law, including right to life issues and regional human rights mechanisms. He has published widely on these matters.

Heyns leaves his wife Fearika and his children Willemien, Adam, and Renée behind. He is the son of Professor Johan Heyns, former NG Church moderator, who was assassinated on Guy Fawkes night 1994 at his home in Waterkloof Ridge. He was shot at close range with a heavy calibre rifle and his killer was never caught.

Pretoria News

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