Obituary: Neelan Tiruchelvam

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The Independent Culture
NEELAN TIRUCHELVAM, who was killed on Thursday by a reported suicide bomber in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, was a leading scholar and activist in the field of human and particularly ethnic-minority rights, both internationally and in his native Sri Lanka. A Tamil, he represented the Tamil United Liberation Front (Tulf) as a "national list" MP and at the time of his death was working with the Sri Lankan government on constitutional reform and devolution.

Born in 1944, Tiruchelvam was the son of a former local government minister who was also a Tulf politician. He was educated at the University of Ceylon Law School and Harvard Law School, where he completed his doctorate. He was a Fulbright Fellow in 1969-71 and held academic appointments in Sri Lanka and at the universities of Yale and Harvard during the 1970s and 1980s.

His distinguished scholarship and steadfast commitment to social justice led to his appointment as a member of international observer and expert missions to Pakistan (1988), Chile (1988), Kazakhstan (1992), Ethiopia (1992) and South Africa (1993). Within Sri Lanka from 1978 he held a series of legal and constitutional appointments, including membership of the Presidential Law Commission and the Presidential Commission on Democratic Decentralisation and Devolution.

He devoted much of his energies over the years to the dominant political question in Sri Lanka of the rights of minorities, in particular of the Tamil population. In response to the widespread violations of human rights and inter-ethnic unrest and conflict between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamils, he dedicated himself to peaceful constitutional changes that would accommodate the needs of both communities. His work began well before dawn - he enjoyed those early quiet times of reflection - and continued late into the night. He had a relentless schedule.

The coming to power in 1994 of the People's Alliance (PA) government, led by Chandrika Kumaratunga, Sri Lanka's first woman president, raised hopes and expectations that the long-running conflict would be settled through a process of negotiation and political accommodation. Kumaratunga was persuaded by Tiruchelvam and other Tamil parliamentarians to present a plan for constitutional reform and devolution that would transform Sri Lanka into a federation of eight regions.

Inter-party negotiations on this plan were severely hampered by increasing levels of violence, but several chapters of the proposed new constitution were released in 1997, and parliamentarians continued to deliberate on the rest of the chapters. The opposition United National Party had substantial difficulties with these proposals, as the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) continued their armed struggle for independence, especially in the north and east. The proposals are due to go before parliament next month but have lost a dynamic champion in Tiruchelvam.

He was a senior partner in the law firm Tiruchelvam Associates and director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo, a non-governmental institute that promotes public understanding of ethnic issues and researches innovative approaches to the reduction and resolution of ethnic conflict. In 1994 he became a member of the International Council of the London-based human rights organisation Minority Rights Group (MRG). Following publication of MRG's report on Sri Lanka in 1996 Tiruchelvam presented the report's recommendations for resolving the civil conflict to the Sri Lankan parliament. In April 1999 he succeeded Sir John Thomson as Chairman of MRG Council.

Slight of build, quiet and thoughtful, Tiruchelvam held a deep-seated commitment to human rights. His unassuming appearance and manner belied an incisive intellect and firm convictions that lasting redress to injustices suffered by ethnic minorities had to be sought through peaceful yet radical change. He was rarely if ever roused to anger with his opponents but always sought to reconcile differences. Because of his unswerving commitment to constitutional solutions to Sri Lanka's inter-ethnic conflict, he was in constant personal danger in his own country and had received police protection for some years.

Tiruchelvam had recently taken up a one-month fellowship in Bellagio, Italy, and was looking forward to a visiting professorship in the United States, at Harvard. His contribution to the cause of minority rights worldwide was highly valued and respected by friends, colleagues and minority communities in many countries.

Tiruchelvam's wife Sithie is herself a distinguished lawyer involved in human rights and development work.

Neelan Tiruchelvam, politician and human rights campaigner: born Colombo, Sri Lanka 31 January 1944; married; died Colombo 29 July 1999.