Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam, who was killed by a suicide bomber in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 29 July 1999, 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 Member of Parliament and at the time of his death was working with the Sri Lankan government on constitutional reform and devolution.
Born in 1944, Neelan Tiruchelvam was educated at the University of Ceylon Law School and Harvard Law School where he completed his doctorate. He was a Fullbright 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 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.
The son of a former local government minister who was also a TULF politician, Neelan married Sithie, herself a distinguished lawyer actively involved in human rights and development work. 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. He knew the dangers but was unflinching in his efforts. His work would begin well before dawn - he enjoyed those early quiet times of reflection - and continue late into the night. He had a relentless schedule.
Neelan was a senior partner in the law firm Tiruchlevam Associates and director of the highly regarded 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. He was also closely associated with the Law and Society Trust. 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 Neelan presented the report's recommendations for resolving the civil conflict to the Sri Lankan parliament. In April 1999 he succeeded Sir John Thomson as chair of MRG's Council.
Slight of build, quiet and thoughtful, Neelan 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 aroused to anger with his opponents but always sought to reconcile differences. He was considered a major human rights figure in international circles, including the United Nations. Because of his unswerving commitment to constitutional solutions to Sri Lanka's inter-ethnic conflict, he knew he was in constant personal danger in his own country that ended in his assassination.