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Faculty and Scholarship

Human Rights Legend Johan van der Vyver (1934-2023)

John Witte, Jr. |

Johan David van der Vyver, legendary human rights scholar, anti-apartheid activist, and I.T. Cohen Professor of International Human Rights at Emory University School of Law, died on May 22, 2023, in Pretoria, South Africa. He was 89 and had remained a full-time scholar and teacher through the spring semester 2023.

Van der Vyver was a giant in the legal academy with high standing around the globe for his brilliant contributions to many fields of legal study. He published two dozen books in multiple editions and languages and 400 plus articles. He lectured widely around the world and was a dedicated classroom teacher, often offering four or five courses and seminars per academic year.   

Van der Vyver was born and raised in South Africa and educated at the University of Potchefstroom where he began his law teaching career in 1958. He soon became a chaired professor of law and served from 1972-1974 as dean of the law faculty. He taught and wrote at length in the fields of property law, family law, the law of persons, church-state relations, legal science, and legal philosophy.

In the 1970s, he began mastering human rights while serving as a visiting scholar and lecturer at Columbia, Michigan, Harvard, and the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies in London. This new accent in his work soon got him in trouble with both the conservative churches of his community and the apartheid state of South Africa. Many local Protestant churches thought human rights to be a dangerous product of Enlightenment liberalism and individualism, which biblical Christians should firmly reject. But van der Vyver argued powerfully and patiently to the contrary that human rights are God’s gifts to human nature, which should be enjoyed and exercised by every human being, regardless of color, class, confession, or sexual orientation. The apartheid state, in turn, reserved human rights to the white elite, leaving vast portions of South African society trapped in dire poverty, illiteracy, and oppression with little legal recourse or protection. Van der Vyver risked much in speaking out against these racist and apartheid policies using the spotlight of human rights to expose the grave injustices that these state policies inflicted. He was soon censored and then dismissed from his position at Potchefstroom and became professor of law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

While now a pariah in some conservative religious and political communities, van der Vyver became a powerful anti-apartheid voice in South Africa and a global champion of human rights. In 1976, he secured major funding from the Ford Foundation to support the burgeoning human rights movement in South Africa. In 1979, he organized the first great international human-rights conference in South African history, introducing the world to a still regional hero at the time, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Throughout this time, he argued constitutional cases in the South African courts on behalf of racial, cultural, and religious minorities. He remained one of the legal architects, along with his many students and a growing body of coworkers, of the antiapartheid campaigns and then the constitutional reform movements of South Africa in the later 1980s and early 1990s.  

Van der Vyver’s work soon attracted the attention of Emory Law’s leading international law scholar Professor Thomas Buergenthal, who introduced him to President Jimmy Carter and his human rights team at The Carter Center. They invited him in the early 1990s to make regular visits to Emory. He was appointed in 1995 as the Senior Fellow of Human Rights at the Carter Center and the I.T. Cohen Professor of International Law and Human Rights at Emory Law. He also became senior fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion and worked with Professors John Witte and Abdullahi An-Na’im on a series of major international projects on democratization, religion and human rights, religious freedom, proselytism, children’s rights, and more.

Once established at Emory, van der Vyver took on several new subjects for him, notably public international law, international humanitarian law, and international criminal law. He followed his trademark method of learning by doing, as he took each of these topics, wrote voluminously on each of them, and created new courses, seminars, and public lectures. Over the past five years, he completed five massive volumes on these international law topics and had a sixth volume well underway.

In recent years, van der Vyver was decorated with all manner of academic awards, tributes, and citations, including an appointment as Professor of Law Extraordinaire at the University of Pretoria alongside his positions at Emory. In sublime acts of sweet justice, the University of Zululand gave him an honorary doctorate for his courageous advocacy for Black South Africans, and his own alma mater at the University of Potchefstroom gave him an honorary doctorate for his courageous prophecy to white South Africans.