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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Tribute to Christof Heyns

09 April 2021

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:  Marta Hurtado
Location: Geneva 
Date: 9 April 2021

We would like to take this opportunity to pay a heartfelt tribute to Christof Heyns, who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in his home country, South Africa, on 28 March. He was just 62 years old.

Professor Heyns, whom many of you have reported on and interviewed over the past decade in his various roles with the UN, was one of the giants in the world of human rights. He was also an extremely warm and generous man, greatly liked and admired by all those of us at OHCHR who knew or worked with him. 

In his most recent role, as a member of the Human Rights Committee from 2017 to 2020, Christof Heyns led the drafting of the widely acclaimed General Comment No. 37 on the right of peaceful assembly, which was published last July.  He also led the team that drafted the UN Human Rights Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement, launched two months earlier in May 2020.  These two documents provide important analysis and guidance on the international law and UN standards relating to peaceful and not-so-peaceful assembly, and their significance and relevance will long outlive their principal creator.

Prior to serving on the Human Rights Committee, Professor Heyns was UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions from 2010 to 2016. His many important achievements in that role included a ground-breaking report on Lethal Autonomous Robotics and the right to life.  He also played a key role in helping update the Minnesota Protocol On The Investigation Of Potentially Unlawful Death, published in 2016, and in the same year chaired the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi in 2016.

His tireless efforts in educating several generations of students to become accomplished human rights lawyers will be an important part of his legacy, including the establishment of the Nelson Mandela World Human Rights Moot Court Competition, about which he was especially passionate.

Until his passing, Christof Heyns was Professor of human rights law and Co-director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa at the University of Pretoria.  In addition to his work with the UN, he played a major role in advancing human rights in Africa, serving as a technical adviser on human rights to the African Union and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

As the High Commissioner said in a message to all OHCHR staff after hearing the sad news of his death, “In addition to all his professional achievements, we remember Christof Heyns as a delightful person.  He was invariably wise, gentle and pleasant.  His warmth, optimism and generosity equalled his expertise.  He cared for all people – those he worked with and those he worked to support and protect.  He was the friend and colleague of many of us, and will be missed terribly.”

An event to commemorate the life of Christof Heyns will be held tomorrow, 10 April. It will be livestreamed and details can be found on a special memorial page on Facebook. See:

This page also contains moving tributes from human rights defenders, colleagues, students, and provides a glimpse of just how many people have been inspired by the life and works of Christof Heyns and, like us, mourn his passing.


For more information and media requests, please contact:
Marta Hurtado - + 41 22 917 9466[email protected] or
Rupert Colville + 41 22 917 9767 / [email protected] or
Liz Throssell + 41 22 917 9296 / [email protected]

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