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Tribute to Christof Heyns

Christof Heyns passed away yesterday at the age of 62.  From 2010-2016, Christof was the UN expert on the death penalty (his official title was the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions). In that role, he intervened in dozens—perhaps hundreds—of death penalty cases, calling on governments to stay the executions of prisoners around the world. Like all UN experts, he worked behind the scenes, as UN rules demanded that his communications with governments remain confidential. But he was an adamant opponent of capital punishment and was always willing to do what he could to help our clients, even if he knew that the chance a Texas governor would listen to a UN expert was smaller than a snowball’s chance in hell.

Unlike many human rights lawyers of his stature, Christof retained a warmth, graciousness and intellectual curiosity that endeared him to many of us who were lucky to work with him. He was always willing to sign an amicus brief or brainstorm a new project. His generosity was all the more noteworthy given the multiple hats he wore:  he was a beloved professor of Human Rights Law and Director of the highly regarded Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria. He served as a member of the UN Human Rights Committee from 2017-2020, where he was one of the principal drafters, alongside Nigel Rodley, of General Comment 36 dealing with the death penalty. General Comment 36 was a watershed in international law regarding the death penalty.  At the time of his death, he was conceiving of a new database that would catalog, among other things, all state legislation and jurisprudence of national courts implementing the decisions of human rights bodies, as a way of illustrating how human rights law is implemented at a local level. It was extremely important to him to include death penalty jurisprudence in this project, as he believed (rightly) that many of the global reforms in death penalty practices were attributable, at least in part, to norms developed by international human rights bodies.

Christof was also a passionate pan-Africanist. His colleagues wrote, in a memorial to his legacy, that the logo of the University of Pretoria Human Rights Centre – Africa as a butterfly – was Christof’s “brainchild, based on the notion that a minor or seemingly insignificant change or action can have momentous or consequential outcomes or consequences.” His colleagues further write that Christof “was a good and deeply moral man, integrity personified, warm-hearted, had a quirky sense of humour, and was ready with a witticism for every occasion. His enthusiasm was boundless and infectious, leaving no one untouched whose life intersected with his.” That was certainly our experience. He will be deeply missed.