Passing of a legal giant, Professor Christof Heyns (10 January 1959 to 28 March 2021)

Posted on March 28, 2021

It is with great shock, bereavement and sadness that the Faculty of Law (UP Law) at the University of Pretoria (UP) has received the news of the passing today (28 March 2021) of one of its internationally esteemed and stalwart colleagues and friends, Professor Christof Heyns (born 1959), who was the Director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa in UP Law until his untimely passing.

Professor Christof Heyns, a Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria, where he has also directed the Centre for Human Rights and was the Dean of the Faculty of Law for a four-year period, has engaged in wide-reaching initiatives on human rights in Africa and internationally.

In 2020, Professor Heyns played an instrumental role in the drafting of General Comment 37 (2020) of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee, which offers global guidance on peaceful assembly.  As an expert in human rights law at UP Law, Professor Heyns was the rapporteur (main drafter) of the committee that published the General Comment in July 2020. He worked with colleagues and students involved in the Freedom from Violence project based in the Faculty of Law.  Professor Heyns made a presentation alongside Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres, at the UN General Assembly event about peaceful assembly.  Professor Heyns also managed the drafting of another document with the Office of the High Commission of Human Rights, which is called the UN Human Rights Guidance on Less Lethal Weapons, which was also released in July 2020. These two documents summarised and restated the international law standards and UN standards on peaceful and not-so-peaceful assembly. 

During this presentation, Professor Heyns emphasised that the role of these two documents was to guide states and provide clarity on what their obligations and rights are. ‘The goal is to create an environment where member states empower citizens with enough knowledge about what their rights and responsibilities are when it comes to assembly.  Simultaneously, law enforcement agencies are also reminded of their roles.‘

Professor Heyns further stated that ‘It is a fundamental human right for individuals to join a peaceful assembly to express themselves, to celebrate, or to air grievances. Together with other rights related to political freedom, it constitutes the very foundation of a democratic society, in which changes can be pursued through discussion and persuasion, rather than use of force.  Everyone, including children, foreign nationals, women, migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees, can exercise the right of peaceful assembly, which may take many forms: in public and in private spaces, outdoors, indoors and online.’

Professor Heyns has advised a number of international, regional and national entities on human rights issues. In August 2010 he was appointed as United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and in 2017 he was the South African candidate for election to the (UN) Human Rights Committee, the treaty monitoring body of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, starting in 2017.

Professor Heyns was also one of three experts appointed to conduct the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi and served as its chair.  He has held a Humboldt Fellowship at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, and a Fulbright Fellowship at the Human Rights Programme at Harvard Law School.  He served on the editorial boards of academic journals in South Africa, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Brazil, Uganda, Turkey and Costa Rica.

As a South African, his strongest engagement has been with the African regional system. He has served on several occasions as technical adviser on human rights to the African Union and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In particular, Professor Heyns served as adviser to the African Commission in developing its influential General Comment on the Right to Life, adopted by the Commission in 2015.

Professor Heyns frequently conducted human rights seminars at master’s level at Oxford University and at the American University in Washington DC, where he was an Adjunct Professor.

Professor Heyns held the degrees BLC, LLB, BA (Hons) and MA (Philosophy) cum laude from the University of Pretoria, a Master’s of Law from Yale Law School (where he was a Fulbright Scholar); and a PhD degree on the history and legal aspects of the non-violent part of the struggle against racial domination in South Africa.

Musicality and creativity run in the family and Professor Heyns was a well-known member of UP Law’s rock band, ‘The Bandits’, who performed at many UP Law Faculty Festivals over a decade.

In February 2020 Professor Heyns and wife Fearika welcomed their first grandchild, Isak Hendrik Rust. 

In her reaction to this shocking news, a deeply saddened Dean Professor Elsabe Schoeman of UP Law said that ‘Christof will be sorely missed by all.  His enthusiasm for life, his dedication as a UP Law academic, his national and international contributions, influence and work are unequalled.  Our deepest condolences to his wife, Fearika, his son Adam Heyns, and two daughters, Willemien Rust, Renée Heyns, son-in-law Arné Francois Rust, mother Renée Heyns and grandson Isak Rust.’


‘When great trees fall,

rocks on distant hills shudder,

lions hunker down

in tall grasses,

and even elephants

lumber after safety…’

- Maya Angelou


Fltr:  Son Adam Heyns, Professor Christof Heyns, son-in-Law Arné Francois Rust, wife Fearika, widow of Professor Johan Heyns, Renée Heyns, and daughters Renée Heyns and Willemien Rust.



Messages to his family and the faculty are welcomed via [email protected]

- Author Elzet Hurter

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