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In Memoriam, Christof Heyns

Christof Heyns speaking at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Photograph by Maina Kiai.

On behalf of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, we were deeply saddened by the death on 28th of March 2021 of Christof Heyns.

Amongst his many achievements, Professor Heyns was a pioneer of international action to preserve our shared humanity in the face of increasing autonomy in weapons systems, arguing that, ‘machines lack morality and mortality, and should as a result not have life and death powers over humans.’

In 2013, as UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, he was the first to bring formal international attention to ‘lethal autonomous robotics’ in a report to the Human Rights Council.  This placed the issue of autonomous weapons clearly on the international agenda – as a moral and legal challenge demanding a response.  He continued to push for action through subsequent reports to the Council and after leaving his post as Special Rapporteur. 

Beyond his intellectual leadership and milestone contributions to developing an international response to autonomy in weapons systems, Christof was greatly valued and deeply appreciated as an ally, a mentor and a friend. He brought great warmth and kindness to his interactions with people.  As Bonnie Docherty of Human Rights Watch noted ‘he was a perfect advocate for a ban on killer robots because he exuded the humanity he was fighting to preserve.’

Only a few days before his untimely death, Christof had kindly recorded a video for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots calling on governments to heed the call of scientists on this issue. He conveyed the same calm authority in that recording as he did throughout his work, a voice and manner that communicated both a great depth of feeling and a steady resolve. 

We will always recall Christof as we continue this work, with appreciation for what he gave us and determination to build on that part of his legacy.

Clare Conboy

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