(On account of the ninth death anniversary of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, Prof. Gowher Rizvi, Director, Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, will deliver the memorial lecture titled “Democracy, Governance and Development” on Sunday, July 27 at the SLFI Auditorium at 6:00 p.m. We reproduce below an article by Britain’s highly respected and prestigious morning daily, The Times, carried an obituary on the assassinated Neelan Tiruchelvam in its issue on August 2, 1999. It is rarely that Sri Lankans have merited mention in the obituary pages of The Times, except for Presidents and Prime Ministers. More than a tribute, an obituary in The Times is considered as a ‘posthumous award or reward’ among the people in Britain.)
Neelan Tiruchelvam was a tireless activist in the sphere of human rights and on behalf of ethnic minorities, not least in his native Sri Lanka.
He devoted much of his time and energy over the years to an attempt to resolve the often violent relations between the island’s minority Tamil population and the majority Sinhalese, a conflict that has left more than 50,000 dead since 1983.
Highly regarded around the world both as a legal scholar and as an advocate for a peaceful resolution to inter-ethnic strife, in his native country Tiruchelvam represented the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) as a ‘national list’ Member of Parliament. He was dedicated to peaceful change and to seeking a solution to his country’s ethnic conflict that would accommodate both communities, and he was much involved at the time of his death with the Sri Lankan Government on plans to introduce a significant measure of constitutional reform and devolution.
Neelan Tiruchelvam was the son of a TULF politician and former Local Government Minister. Educated at the University of Ceylon and at Harvard Law School, he was a Fulbright Fellow in 1969-71 and went on to hold academic appointments in Sri Lanka and at the University of Harvard and Yale.
He soon built an international reputation both as a scholar and as a campaigner for social justice.
As a result he was invited to join missions of experts and observers sent in the 1980s and 1990s to Pakistan, Chile, Kazakhastan, Ethiopia, South Africa and Nigeria.
He performed similar work in Sri Lanka as a member of the Presidential Law Commission and the Presidential Commission on Democratic Decentralisationa and Devolution, and held a number of other legal and constitutional appointments.
When Sri Lanka’s first woman President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, came to power with her People’s Alliance Government in 1994, there were hopes that the island’s protracted and bloody inter-ethnic hostilities might be settled by negotiation and compromise. Working with Tiruchelvam, President Kumaratunga devised a plan to transform Sri Lanka into a federation of eight regions.
Although the proposals for reform and devolution were supported by Tiruchelvam and other Tamil parliamentarians when they were presented in 1995, inter-party negotiations were impeded by renewed and intensified violence. Nevertheless, several chapters of the proposed new constitution were released after two years, and the political debate continued, even though it proved difficult to attract the support of the necessary two-thirds of Parliamentarians for these far-reaching proposals. The measures were due to be presented to Parliament over the next two months.
The most dangerous opposition came from outside Parliament, however. The Tamil Tigers - who have been waging a war for a separate homeland for the mostly Hindu Tamils against the Buddhist Sinhalese since 1983 - rejected the proposed compromises and continued to wage a guerilla war against the Government for total independence. Atrocities were continuing and a climate of violence remained the norm in parts of Sri Lanka.
Tiruchelvam was a senior partner in the law firm Tiruchelvam Associates and director of the highly respected, non-governmental International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo. He was also closely associated with the Law and Society Trust.
In 1994 he found a new outlet for his commitment when he became a member of the International Council of the London-based human rights organisation, Minority Rights Group International. When the group published its report on the Sri Lankan conflict in 1996, it was Tiruchelvam who presented the report’s recommendation to the Sri Lankan Parliament. In April this year he succeeded Sir John Thomson as chairman of MRO’s council.
Slight and unassuming in appearance, with a quiet, thoughtful manner, Tiruchelvam had sharp and firm convictions. His commitment to reconciliation and to radical but peaceful change set him at odds with those whose positions were more entrenched.
He was in constant personal danger in his own country, and had for some years been under police protection after repeated threats from the Tamil Tigers.
Tiruchelvam had close links with the .Faculty of Law at Cambridge University, and had shared experiences and insights on conflict resolution with scholars and practitioners from Northern Ireland. He had a deep affection for Britain, where his sons completed their university education. At the time of his death he had recently taken up a one-month Rockefeller fellowship in Bellaggio, Italy, and was looking forward to a visiting professorship at Harvard.
He is survived by his wife Sithie, herself an attorney, and his two sons.