Visiting Fellow Alum Spotlight: Christof Heyns

As we advertise our 2020-2021 Visiting Fellowship application, we are looking back and celebrating alums of the program. Christof Heyns is Director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa and Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria. At the time of his HRP Visiting Fellowship, he was also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions. Reflecting on his time as a Visiting Fellow, Professor Heyns corresponded with HRP in a short Q&A reprinted below.

Through its Visiting Fellows Program, the Human Rights Program (HRP) has sought to give individuals with a demonstrated commitment to human rights an opportunity to engage with the human rights community at Harvard Law School (HLS). Scholars and practitioners interested in applying should submit their materials by January 31, 2020. Learn about this year’s cohort and past Visiting Fellows to explore the range of research Visiting Fellows have engaged in while at HLS.

Q&A with Christof Heyns

Christof Heyns speaks at a panel discussion on the UDHR in 2018.
Christof Heyns, Member of the Human Rights Committee and former Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions at a Panel discussion to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the UDHR and the 25th anniversary of the VDPA during of the of the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council. 28 february 2018. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

HRP: Could you describe your Visiting Fellow research project?

Heyns: I was a visiting fellow in 2012, and worked mostly on issues concerning article 6 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR], protecting the right against arbitrary deprivation of life. I was one year into my term as United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and was working among other things on the legal framework concerning the death penalty, the use of force by the police during demonstrations, and armed drones.

HRP: How did your fellowship contribute to your research goals and long term work plans?

Heyns: The fellowship presented an ideal opportunity to focus in detail on these topics, and to start preparing reports that I subsequently submitted to the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council. We organised an expert meeting at HLS on the death penalty at the time, for reports that the Special Rapporteur on torture and I were preparing on the death penalty. But [HLS] was also the place where I formed my most enduring ideas on where I wanted to go with the mandate. Stephen Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard, had just published his book on the decline of violence, and I got to meet him, and to discuss the implications of his findings for my work. He also participated in the seminar we had organised on the death penalty.

HRP: What stands out to you as particularly valuable about the Visiting Fellowship Program at HRP? What did you enjoy most about your time in Cambridge?

Heyns: The intellectual environment could not be more stimulating. This applies to the topics on which I work directly, but also more generally. I found after a few weeks that I had to ration myself in terms of the number of talks and events that I could attend per day, to ensure that I was able to get to my own work! I have kept many of the links I established there and in fact continue to work with HLS students on a number of projects.

Christof Heyns Photo: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0. No modifications have been made.