University of Pretoria mourns loss of esteemed human rights law expert Professor Christof Heyns

Posted on March 29, 2021

The University of Pretoria (UP) joins colleagues in the global law and human rights networks in mourning the loss of legal giant Professor Christof Heyns, who was the Director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa at UP’s Faculty of Law.

Prof Heyns was a professor of Human Rights Law at UP and was internationally recognised for his wide-reaching initiatives on human rights in Africa and beyond. He also directed UP’s Centre for Human Rights and was the Dean of the Faculty of Law for a four-year period.

In 2020, he 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, he was the rapporteur (main drafter) of the committee that published the General Comment in July 2020. To this end, he worked with colleagues and students involved in the Freedom from Violence project based at UP Law.


Prof Christof Heyns; Ms Abigail Noko, UN Human Rights regional representative; and Prof Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal, at the University of Pretoria during the recent global webinar ‘Peaceful (and Not so Peaceful) Assemblies: A Fresh Look at the International Standards’.

Prof Heyns made a presentation alongside the Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres, at the UN General Assembly event about peaceful assembly. He also managed the drafting of another document, called the UN Human Rights Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons; this was done with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and 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. 

Prof Heyns advised a number of international, regional and national entities on human rights issues. As a South African, his strongest engagement was with the African regional system. On several occasions he served as a technical adviser on human rights to the African Union and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Notably, he served as adviser to the African Commission in developing its influential General Comment on the Right to Life, adopted by the Commission in 2015.

Prof Heyns held a BLC, LLB, BA (Hons) and MA (Philosophy) cum laude from UP, 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; the professor was a well-known member of UP Law’s rock band, The Outlaws, which performed at many Law Faculty festivals over the years. In February 2020, Prof Heyns and his wife, Fearika, welcomed their first grandchild, Isak Hendrik Rust. 

UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe said, “Prof Heyns will be sorely missed, not only by his colleagues at UP but also by the law fraternity further afield. The loss of his expertise and knowledge will leave a significant gap throughout the world. We offer our deepest condolences to his wife, his son Adam, his two daughters, Willemien Rust and Renée Heyns, son-in-law Arné Francois Rust, mother Renée Heyns, and his grandson.”  

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