It is graduation time at most South African institutions of higher learning and many a Studietrust bursary beneficiary will over the next few weeks don the gown to receive that degree or diploma and celebrate the hard work and determination of the past few years.
Prof Christof Heyns, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or
arbitrary executions, and Professor of Human Rights Law, Co-director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa at the University of Pretoria and former Studietrust trustee, recently spoke at a graduation ceremony at Wits University. With his permission we publish his thought-provoking speech, in the hope that our graduates all over South Africa will be inspired by his words while they celebrate their achievements and at the same time recommit themselves to the task at hand, here in South Africa, and in the world.
Graduation address: The University of the Witwatersrand, 1 April 2014
Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management
“How far we have come and how far we still need to go” Christof Heyns
I am deeply honoured to address you today on this important occasion, where the commerce, law and management students of this outstanding university are graduating. As you heard, I was fortunate enough to be a graduate here some years ago as well, and it has made all the difference to my career, both in terms of what I had learned and the recognition that Wits enjoys around the world, as a leader in the field of higher education and in the quest for social justice. Over the years people like myself have taken, and continue to take, inspiration from institutions such as the Centre for Applied Legal Studies – in many ways the model we used for the Centre for Human Rights in Pretoria – and from what Wits has come to stand for.
It seems to me that graduation in many respects symbolizes a changing of the guard. After today you formally are no longer “students”, but “graduates” and “alumni”; you will now practice and not just just learn about the principles of your profession. You will also no longer be assessed and judged by this University according to the standards that it has set for you; instead this institution will be judged according to the standards that you maintain in the “world out there”.
For those who graduate today, and their loved ones who have supported them during their studies, often at great cost to themselves, a new and exciting phase of life has started. For this institution, one more year ring is added to the sturdy trunk of this tree that has such a proud record of service to its country and society.
I would like to make some observations today from the perspective of my experience of “the world out there” and, in particular, from my experience of having worked with the United Nations over the last four years as Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. In other words, as advisor to the world body and to its member States on unlawful killing, or, as my colleagues like to say, Special Rapporteur on all kinds of terrible things.
I recently asked an ambassador to Geneva from a country from which there are troubling reports whether I could conduct a fact-finding mission to his country. He remained silent for a while and then asked: “So you want to come and tell us we are killing people?” I had to be honest, and tell him yes, that was more or less it. However, I like to see it in a more positive light – the mandate is an opportunity to pursue the better protection of life on a global scale.
However positive one wants to put it, there is no escaping the reality of how cruel we remain to each other. From the slaughter in the Central African Republic and Syria, in open daylight, to the hidden but no less real and systematic horrors of the People’s Republic of North Korea, these are affronts to our aspirations to call ourselves a world based on human rights. The excessive use of force by the police against demonstrators and other members of the public in countries such as Venezuela, Turkey, Egypt and, in some cases, our own country, are a far cry from what is promised in the treaties to which these states have signed up.
I recently did extensive missions to Mexico, where some 100 000 people died during the last eight years in drug-related violence, and Papua New Guinea, where sorcery-related killing is endemic.
Many have called the last century the “most violent century” ever, and say that with the advance of technology, such as drones and now lethal robots, we are heading for a situation where we will destroy ourselves.
I get deeply affected by seeing these things first-hand. The pleas of parents who have lost their children in the conflicts of Kashmir and in Turkey to a stranger like myself to “do something” will stay with me forever. In meeting victims, I sometimes feel as if I am with a traveling global Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The distinct limits to what I, or for that matter the UN, can do for them does not help the situation. In some ways the situation seems unresolvable.
And yet, and yet: There is something to be said for a scientific approach in the midst of such horror. Those who have the luxury to retreat from the mayhem and do the casualty counting tell us that although we are starting from a very low base, the world as a whole may in fact be getting less violent. Yes, what we see today is unacceptable, but it is still better than how things were one or two hundred years ago.
Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker, whom I had the privilege of involving in the course of some of my work on the death penalty, has published an extensive study claiming that over the last four centuries an ever-decreasing percentage of the world population has met its end at the hands of other human beings – and that includes the two world wars of the 20th century. While aspects of the study are controversial, not many argue with his main conclusion: As a species we may be getting less violent.
What has gone up is not the number of casualties; rather, compared to previous centuries, it is our sensibilities and expectations that have gone up, as well as our exposure to violence through the media. We are now in the human rights era and what was earlier accepted as inevitable, and had to be endured “like the weather”, as the Roman historian Tacitus put it, can now be challenged and changed. The agony does not go away, because each life is of infinite value, and the levels of violence are still much too high. In fact, the agony may be higher than in the past because we are now more sensitive. We may also be replacing the old problems with new ones, such as global warming. However, there is some comfort to be had from knowing that, in some respects, we are doing the right thing.
Pinker is the first to acknowledge that this is no guarantee for the future. You may know the story of the man who fell from the 20th floor of a building, and as he passed the second floor on his way down someone asked him through the window how it was going. His answer was: “not too bad, so far”. The apparent decline in violence may still all change. Ukraine; global warming; terrorism and excessive countermeasures; drones that roam the earth; new weapons that will select and engage targets without human intervention; there are so many threats. However, we will do well to notice that we live in what is called the “long peace” – we have not had a world war since 1945; and if we want to retain and sustain and increase this trend, we need to know what has caused this.
A number of causes for the decline in violence may be identified. No doubt world trade has played a significant role, not only in expanding the size of the cake, and of the middleclass worldwide, but also in creating a situation where the “Other” is not primarily my enemy, but rather my trading partner. Commerce and management have made our world more interlinked and capable of meeting our aims. The whole is indeed proving to be more – much more – than the sum of the parts. Together, as the saying also goes, we can do more. Global communication has likewise played a huge role. We can now understand something of the inner world of people whom we have never met through reading their books and watching their movies.
A further reason why we are less violent as a species, I would venture to say, is the emergence of international law as a global force. Consider the fact that war has throughout most of history been a legal and indeed an acceptable form of settling disputes. Have you noticed how the “Department of Defense” of countries such as the United Kingdom used to be called the “Department of War”? It is only at the middle of the last century that an international system was developed “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” A human rights ethos, and world organization, which pre-emptively removes many of the causes of conflict was established.
One hundred and fifty years ago Henry Dunant witnessed the slaughter at Solferino, and established the Red Cross, as a global force to counter the terrible effect of war, and International Humanitarian Law followed in its wake. In essence, international law has served as a “gentle civilizer” of nations and of human beings. The system is, no doubt, full of holes and great powers like the USA and Russia all too often cross the line at will, but we are much better off than 100 years ago, when these lines hardly existed.
There is no room for complacency and, in fact, it will be dangerous to focus too much on the road that we have travelled so far, lest we lose sight of the challenges that lie ahead. However, every now and again, as has famously been said, one needs to stop on the way up a mountain and consider where you have come from. A graduation ceremony is one such occasion, where we should pause and take stock of the question whether we are moving in the right direction. Judging from the above, it seems clear to me that your skills will be sorely needed.
Like I am sure many of you are, I am deeply concerned about the road we are currently travelling on in South Africa. I will not make the easy case that there are many societies where it is much worse, even though that is obviously true, I see that for myself every day. We should not compare ourselves to them, but rather to what we can be. However, allow me to say that I am convinced that the odds faced by many other societies are much more difficult to beat than the odds we are up against in South Africa; and we have a track record of having moved against the odds to where we are.
We have a real chance to consolidate the gains of our democracy. There can be little doubt about our ability, ranging from our natural resources to the people this country continues to bring forth. The answer to how to seize the future in such a divided and unequal society is also not difficult – it lies in establishing a system of laws that is responsive to the needs of our people, one that treats people as partners and with dignity. It is as simple as that, and any attempt to undermine the law and our constitution and its institutions is a step in the wrong direction that has to be resisted. There is no short cut. Our society has to be built brick by brick.
Successful nations are those with vibrant institutions that operate according to their own internal logic, the one as a supplement and a check and a balance for the other. External interference with institutions such the courts, the media, and universities is certain to deny all of us that future. However, these institutions, in order to be effective, also need committed and able people, who have the high-end skills and education needed to make a difference in the complex world of today. In short, they need you.
So, my message to you is one of human agency, and of building society not based on slogans, but through institutions, brick by brick. The world is a daunting place, but we need not and should not throw up our hands and say there is nothing we can do about this. We are in significant ways making progress with the right to life – widely regarded as the most fundamental right and also the most measurable (you are either killed or not). If that is possible, we can certainly make progress also with the other rights. I would venture to say that the growth of many of the economies of the so-called “developing world” during the last couple of years suggests that this can also be done as far as socio-economic rights are concerned – if we want to. Of course, the catch is in the ‘if’.
This brings me to my last observation: What does it mean to walk out of here today as a Wits graduate? My starting point would come from the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which links rights to responsibilities, and I am pretty sure your school and university teachers, like mine, have emphasized this to you. We are social beings, and whether we call it that, or Ubuntu, or medemenslikheid, we our bound to each other.
Therefore, opportunities such as those you and I had come with obligations. Exceptional opportunities come with exceptional responsibilities. We have a duty to plough what we have received back into our societies. We – you and I – are singularly equipped to ensure that our community is one that allows everyone to be fully human. We are the ones with a singular obligation to make sure the “if” is met.
As I see it, the starting point for us as a society and as a continent to move forward – to exercise the agency I have spoken about – is that those who will be able to do the most for their society, must get the opportunities to develop their skills to the highest level. You were given those opportunities.
There is much more I would have liked to talk to you about today. I would have liked to talk about how it is possible to be a South African but also a citizen of the world; about the shortage of people from our continent, and with your backgrounds, in the UN and other global institutions. I would have liked to say how gaining such experience and bringing it back to our country is essential for our growth. But enough words for now: You will see these things for yourselves.
Action is more important. Let's celebrate today not only how far we as a society, but also you as individuals, have come. Let’s do so thoroughly. Then we need to get down to the important work that lies ahead.