Neelan was an Uncompromising Champion of Human Rights by Mike Marqusee

The assassination of Neelan Tiruchelvam by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) on 29th July is a tragic setback for the causes of peace and democracy in Sri Lanka. Neelan was an uncompromising global champion of human rights, a world-renowned expert in constitutional law, and a Member of Parliament for the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). He was a major contributor to the devolution plan proposed by the current Sri Lankan government, which remains to date the best hope for a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict, and his death bodes ill for the immediate future of any meaningful Sri Lankan peace process.

Neelan was a Long-standing and outspoken critic of the racist and repressive practices of successive Sri Lankan governments, not least the abuses committed by the Sri Lankan army in the course of its prolonged war with the LTTE. But he also firmly rejected the LTTE’s violent and authoritarian ethno-nationalism. He was one of a number of Sri Lankan progressives, from various ethnic backgrounds, who came to believe that the ethnic conflict could only be resolved in the context of the democratization of Sri Lankan society as a whole. With his brutal elimination – by a suicide bomber in the broad daylight of Colombo’s rush hour – the LTTE have signaled once again their refusal to tolerate the existence of any alternative leadership or program for the Tamil people. As a result, Tamils have lost one of these most eloquent and credible advocates on the international stage. Neelan was a remarkable multi-dimensional figure – an intellectual and an activist, a pragmatic politician and idealist, an institution-builder, a film fan, and a Cricket enthusiast. He was prepared to engage with the refractory details of the present while also applying his imagination and expertise to a vision of the future.

Neelan was an individual of exceptional modesty, gentleness, and good humor. His generosity to the legions to him seeking advice or assistance was legendary from which many drew strength. In the days following his death, there were messages of grief from heads of state, academics, religious figures, Journalists, and most piquantly scores of NGOs and human rights groups from all corners of the world.

In a recent speech to the Sri Lankan parliament, Neelan called on both sides of the country’s civil war to recognize anew “the sanctity of human life”. Referring to the recent assassination of other TULF officials, he noted: “Sadly, the impact of these deaths were only too brief as we uncritically resign ourselves to war, destruction, and political assassinations as being inextricably part of our troubled history.” Yet Neelan refused to “surrender to despair”. His death is a bitter blow to his family, his friends, and the human rights community in Sri Lanka and around the world. But his legacy is immensely rich and will nourish many in the years to come.