Last conversation with SA legal giant who tried to make the world a better place – Prof Christof Heyns

Professor Christof Heyns occupied various roles at the University of Pretoria’s law faculty – including Dean, Director of the Centre for Human Rights, and the founding Director of the Institute for Comparative Law in Africa (where he made the faculty a magnet for talented African students). Internationally, he shone as UN Special Rapporteur and subsequently as a member of the Committee of the Human Rights Commission. Heyns chaired the UN independent investigation on Burundi and was instrumental in rewriting several UN protocols. He passed away at the age of 62, without seeing his father’s murderer brought to justice. Johan Heyns, the former moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church was gunned down at his Pretoria home in 1994. However, he did help to rewrite the ‘Minnesota Protocol’, the gold standard for investigations into unlawful death. To colleagues, Christof Heyns was the guitar-playing professor. To his friends, he was the easy-going intellectual who loved to tell jokes. In what was probably one of the last interviews he did, Heyns told BizNews that he remained positive that liberal values – which have taken a knock in recent years – will prevail, and that the idea of human rights is “alive and strong”. Despite the murder of his father and the many atrocities he investigated, he always saw the glass of life as half-full. This interview was conducted in October 2020. Heyns passed away in March 2021. – Linda van Tilburg

Professor Christof Heyns on his time with the UN:

I served for four years on the Human Rights Committee, the body that looks after civil and political rights from the UN side. Before that, I was the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions – that’s the individual who advises states on issues concerning the right to life, in particular, things such as the use of force by police, death penalty and investigation into unlawful death. The main things that we do in the Human Rights Committee focus on civil and political rights.

On the murder of his father, Johan Heyns, and how it impacted his work:

I was the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions for six years. That means that you investigate murder and you deal with what the standards are in the first place – when may a life be taken, for example, in self-defense – but also what are the standards on proper investigations? I did not particularly set out to become the Rapporteur on executions – that just happened.

Then I realised this was actually, in a way, an opportunity to address this particular shortcoming where there was some investigation, but we never knew what happened – and still today we don’t know. You get a sense of what it means then for people in such a situation. I had the opportunity of visiting 10 countries, including – Mexico, Papua New Guinea, and India.

Mexico, I remember very well. Travelling to what was called the most dangerous city in the world at the time, Ciudad Juárez, and meeting with the families of people who’ve lost loved ones. I cannot describe it differently from a travelling truth commission. People want to talk to you. You represent the outside world. We had the same feeling in India and the same feeling in Ukraine, too – where people travel 18 hours in India on a bus to talk to you because they want people to know and they want the international community to take note of what has happened.

It struck me that this is an opportunity to look at this very important issue of having proper investigations when there’s a tragedy like that. Fortunately, it was time to update the Minnesota Protocol, which is the gold standard on the investigation of potentially unlawful death. I worked for three years with forensic doctors, lawyers, and with others – there were about 30 of us. We then published in 2016. Hopefully this is something that will, in other similar cases, help people in the same sort of situation.

On whether mistakes were made with his father’s case:

That’s difficult to say because to make an assessment in the same way that we make assessments professionally within the UN, you need to have the files and you need to know exactly what the evidence is. We didn’t know what the evidence was and we still don’t know. But the important thing is that there wasn’t an outcome. Of course, then you want to make sure that you have the best possible standards that apply there. I think you have some empathy. You know where people come from when they say that they want a proper investigation.

On whether humanity is making progress with human rights:

Psychologists talk about a sort of confirmation bias. If you read a newspaper – and we know that’s just the nature, I’m not criticising the press – they report on the exceptional. In many cases, they have the ability – and we have cell phones now that take footage – to convey some of the gruesome things that happen in society. Of course, every single murder is terrible on its own. It’s a tragedy for the individuals involved.

But, I think looking at where we are now, it was even worse. If one looks at the figures over the last couple of centuries, the percentage of the human population of earth – that died violent deaths – has come down considerably. The average in the world – not in every part of the world, not in every region, and certainly not in the linear decline. But the overall percentage of people who died violent deaths has come down considerably over the years.

I think in the long-term, this is because of a number of things, including the value that we place on human rights and human life, and the fact that we increasingly want accountability. People are murdered; we want proper investigations. We want the police to use less lethal weapons rather than firearms. Over time, that has played quite a role. So it doesn’t feel like that. I think now also with everything happening in the world and the uncertainty about some of the big countries that used to be the sort of promoters of human rights – who are not doing it at this moment – it’s easy to get a dark picture of where things are.

But I think that if one looks at the UN – just over 75 years old now – it’s the longest period in history, on record, without a war between the major powers. That is a significant role in terms of the number of people killed. By far, war-related deaths are now the minority of deaths, as opposed to earlier times in history. So, yes, I think over time we make a difference. It doesn’t feel like that – because we very visibly see people getting shot and we get the news on that, which wasn’t available earlier – but it was actually much worse before.

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