The University of Pretoria, working with a global network of research partners (including in Cambridge, Geneva and well-established collaboration with more than a dozen other African universities), recently established a research programme that focuses on violence reduction and securing the right to life in Africa. This is a multi-disciplinary programme that engages in the African context with the aspiration of UN Sustainable Development Goal 16 to establish ‘peaceful societies’.


The programme begins from the assumption that violence is not an immutable constant—that it can be affected by social, economic, legal and policy interventions. Moreover, it explores to what extent, in addition to the commitment of the SDGs, States’ international human rights law obligations require them to implement interventions that can be demonstrated to have an impact on the protection of life.

The ‘Freedom from Violence in Africa’ programme is located in the Faculty of Law, and some of the core research will be about the legal dimensions of issues such as the use of force by law enforcement officials, and the State’s duty to protect and to investigate, including in the context of anti-terrorism measures and armed conflict. It will also explore some of the more practical dimensions of these fields, including the use of less lethal weapons, or the use of new technologies for training, monitoring and accountability.

At the same time, we are also very interested in the insights that are brought to the topic by other disciplines such as criminology, sociology, political science, public health, and history, especially with respect to better understanding the incidence of violence in Africa. Applicants from such backgrounds or looking to be based in such other Faculties can be supported as part of the programme, potentially across an emerging international network.

Students on the programme will have the opportunity to engage with each other and with international experts in this field, as well as to participate in research projects and collaborative interventions aimed at reducing levels of violence in particular contexts.

Research Agenda: Potential topics

Freedom from Violence has a broad research agenda and welcomes doctoral applicants to propose specific research projects within it. The essential contention is that a human-rights based approach, with robust accountability mechanisms that take seriously the role that accountability has in structural reform—can reinforce and be reinforced by systemic review and developmental approaches to violence reduction.

Within these broad research questions, supervisors will also welcome research projects aimed at exploring the potential application of the revised Minnesota Protocol to improved investigations and accountability for potentially unlawful violence. As noted above, SDG 16 is a central reference-point for Freedom from Violence, and applications are sought that look critically to examine the processes of national or regional implementation of the Sustainable Development Agenda, and in particular SDG 16.

Study leaders

Christof Heyns is professor of human rights law and Director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law at the University of Pretoria, where he served as Dean of the Faculty of Law and Director of the Centre for Human Rights. He is a member of the UN Human Rights Committee. He teaches on the human rights Masters’ programme at Oxford University, is adjunct professor at the American University in Washington DC, and in 2016 was a visiting professor at the University of Geneva. Heyns was United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions 2010 – 2016. During 2016 he chaired the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi.

Stuart Maslen specialises in the use of force under international law. He is an Honorary Professor at the University of Pretoria and holds a doctorate in international humanitarian law and master’s degrees in international human rights law and in forensic ballistics. He recently co-authored a commentary on the Arms Trade Treaty, published by Oxford University Press in 2016, and on police use of force under international law, published by Cambridge University Press in 2017.

Thomas Probert is an Extraordinary Lecturer at the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa at the University of Pretoria and a Research Associate at the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at the University of Cambridge. He worked as a research consultant to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions from 2013-2016, including being based at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva from 2015-6.

Applications / Contact

If you are interested in undertaking doctoral studies on this topic, please contact the Cheree Olivier (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ). Potential applicants are encouraged to explain both the field and potential subject of their intended research, which can then be assessed in relation to Freedom from Violence’s research priorities.