Honoring a Disarmament Champion

Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

Christof Heyns speaking at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland against a UN backdrop. Credit: Maina Kiai.
Christof Heyns speaking at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
Credit: Maina Kiai.

Harvard Law School’s Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative (ACCPI) joins disarmament and human rights advocates around the world in mourning the loss of Christof Heyns. The South African lawyer, whom Amnesty International described as a “giant of human rights,” died on March 28 at age 62. Among his many achievements, Heyns was known in the humanitarian disarmament community for spurring states to address killer robots at the Human Rights Council and elsewhere at the United Nations. He was also widely admired for his kindness and generosity and for being a “deeply moral man.”

Tributes have come many quarters, including the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights, the South African Human Rights Commission, colleagues and friends, former students, and more. The testimonial below was written by Bonnie Docherty, who directs the ACCPI. It originally appeared on the website of Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program:

While Christof Heyns championed a multitude of human rights causes, I knew him best through our common work on “killer robots.” As special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Christof sounded an early alarm about the human rights implications of fully autonomous weapons, weapons systems that would select and engage targets without meaningful human control. In 2013, Christof brought his concerns to the United Nations, urging the Human Rights Council to take action against this emerging technology. Three years later, he and the special rapporteur on free expression explicitly called for a ban on killer robots. Through publications, presentations, and persistence, Christof compelled countries to recognize the dangers of delegating life-and-death decisions to machines and prompted them to initiate deliberations on fully autonomous weapons in a major disarmament forum.

Christof was not only a brilliant and effective lawyer but also a kind, generous, and self-effacing individual. He treated students and colleagues with respect and compassion, and he went out of his way to learn from others. I remember Christof peppering me with questions about the Clinic’s work on fully autonomous weapons when he was a Human Rights Program fellow in 2012; our first conversation over lunch at the Hark [the Harvard Law School cafeteria] led to many more. Christof also worked closely with civil society, including the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a global coalition with which the Clinic partners. Campaign members have exchanged memories and messages of mourning since news of his death broke. Christof was a perfect advocate for a ban on killer robots because he exuded the humanity he was fighting to preserve.