Friday, 25 May 2012

East Timor : Language and The Law

Original Citation: 2009 ETLJ 9 East Timor : Language and The Law

Legal information on East Timor is difficult to find even on the web. There are hardly any East Timor law-dedicated sites even though it has been 6 years since East Timor won its independence. The other problem is that even when access to East Timor legislation is found, new laws are issued by the East Timor Parliament and the Government only in the Portuguese language which hardly anyone in East Timor can understand. Although Portuguese is spoken by many people (for example, in Brazil and Portugal), the distribution of this language throughout the world is also very limited.

Language of the Law and the Rule of Law
This language issue presents serious problems for the whole idea of the rule of law in East Timor: How can citizens be expected to comply with law that can not be read by the ordinary person? Even lawyers have difficulty interpreting law when they know the language in which the law has been drafted! It is incomprehensible that a government in any country would issue laws in a language that is not understood by its citizens and the East Timor government needs to review this policy.

This also presents problems not just for the citizens but also for the police and private lawyers trying to advise their clients about their legal rights and obligations. Again, hardly any of the police in East Timor understand Portuguese so how can they enforce the law properly? Similarly, the private lawyers in East Timor were nearly all educated in Indonesian law schools and have never learnt Portuguese so they also encounter grave difficulties in advising and representing citizens charged with criminal offences.

How can we speak of the efficacious rule of law in East Timor in these circumstances?

Legal Language and the Courts in East Timor - Problems in the Administration of Justice
In the courts of East Timor, the language problem in even worse when it comes to the administration of the law by judges. The government of East Timor has been appointing foreign judges from Portugal to the bench in East Timor. The consequences of this are also of concern. The first problem here is that the vast majority of the applicable law in East Timor is based on the Indonesian legal system and only available in the Indonesian language. The Portuguese judges can not read Indonesian and there is a scarcity of Portuguese/Indonesian translators so in order for the Portuguese judge to understand the law that he or she must apply, the Indonesian text has to be translated into English and then translated again into Portuguese. In this double translation process, the fine nuances of legal words and phrases and even the whole spirit of the original text are distorted, if not lost. In these circumstances, it would not be surprising if there were cases of miscarriages of justice for the people of East Timor.

The second problem that the language issue presents to the Courts of East Timor is that while the judge is conducting the proceedings in his or her mother tongue, namely, Portuguese, the police and the accused will in most cases not understand this language and will only be familiar with either Tetum or Indonesian. So everything must be translated. And again, sometimes there has to be a double translation which carries the risk described above of losing the original meaning of the law or of the evidence. Here, the issue can often be even more complicated if, for example, the judge is speaking in Portuguese, the prosecutor is using Tetum but the defendant or the accused may only speak his or her regional language. In remote areas of East Timor, even Tetum and Indonesian are not understood and one of as many as 35 different regional languages may be the mother tongue of the defendant or accused. So the language problem and the interpretation and meaning of law and evidence is further compounded by this.

Issues for Non-Portuguese speaking Critiques of East Timor law
One of the important aspects of any legal system is the capacity for it to be subject to constant scrutiny and critique. Law should never be carved in stone so that it is unchangeable. The law must evolve with society. The law must also comply with fundamental human rights precepts and the Constitutional regime governing the enactment of legislation. While foreign critiques of a nation's law might be ignored by the legislators, there are many prominent and learned international jurists who are able to assess a nation's laws to see if they do comply with basic standards of justice and equity and, if necessary, trigger a reform movement that might be participated in by national citizens and entities who advocate for law reform within a country.

As English is fast becoming the leading language of international law and economy and is widely spoken and understood, it is important that a country's laws be available in English so that they can be subject to this scrutiny and critique process. English translations are also of critical importance for foreign investors who need to know the legal regime governing their investment and activities. In East Timor, it is only because of the United Nations office (UNOTIL) that most of the laws enacted by the Parliament and the Government of East Timor have been translated and published in English. Although the translations are not official translations, they are still a valuable source of legal information on East Timor for these purposes.

Warren L Wright BA LLB
Sydney 19 June 2006

See also: East Timor: Expert calls for end to legal language barriers

Dili, 24 Jan. (AKI) - East Timor’s laws should be translated into the local Tetun language to give people a better understanding and respect for the law, according to one of the country's legal experts.

In an interview with Adnkronos International (AKI), Warren Wright, editor of the East Timor Law Journal, commended the Asia Foundation’s access to justice program – which is translating the laws.

But he claimed that this action was not enough.

“Access to the law in a language that one understands is a fundamental democratic right that has not always been a salient feature in East Timor,” Wright told AKI.

“Through laws, citizens get to know their legal rights and obligations in relation to each other and to the state, as well as the nature of the legal conflict resolution mechanisms."

However, Wright stated that more needs to be done to make the laws accessible to East Timor’s one million people, half of whom cannot read or write.

“It is still also necessary to inform ordinary people about the meaning of the laws. The government should carry out public information campaigns about important new laws, and how they affect society,” he said.

The Asia Foundation’s program includes a public legal information campaign. The program uses talkback radio programs, public meetings in rural areas, and posters and brochures to educate citizens about the country’s evolving legal framework.

Among the new Tetun-language publications is a reference volume for the court of appeal, an explanation of court responsibilities, and brochures explaining key provisions of the new penal procedures code.

Most of East Timor’s laws were written in Portuguese, the language of the former colonizer.

Portuguese and Tetun are two official languages in East Timor but the former is now only understood by, and associated with, a tiny political elite residing in Dili.

The language barrier in understanding the laws mirrors similar difficulties faced by East Timorese in obtaining jobs in public administration, where Portuguese is often required.

Most of the young, educated East Timorese studied in Indonesian-run schools during Jakarta’s 24-year long occupation of the former Portuguese colony.

The language issue has often been mentioned as one of the main reasons for the alienation of the young and the violence that still pervades East Timor.


  1. Caros Amigos, permitam-me que transcreva, com a maior supresa, pela evidente posição imperialista e neo-colonialista, a asserção abaixo:
    "As English is fast becoming the leading language of international law and economy and is widely spoken and understood, it is important that a country’s laws be available in English so that they can be subject to this scrutiny and critique process. "
    Poderá, alguém, em seu pleno juízo, dar credibilidade a isto...?!... esta afirmação seria, certamente, em toda a Europa, motivo para a maior indignação...só faltava, agora, que os países perdessem a sua soberania e o direito de se auto-governarem usando a língua dos USA, Austrália e UK ... países cuja politica internacional é bem conhecida de todo o mundo...em vez da sua própria identidade linguística e cultural...
    Por favor poupem-nos a comentários deste tipo ...!!!

  2. Thanks for your comment Maria. I dont completely understand Portuguese but I get the general meaning of what you are saying. I guess in retrospect, if English speakers want to look at the laws of East Timor in English, then they should get their own translations done. I do maintain my point however, that has been made again recently that the lack of translation of the laws of the Parliament and the Government into Tetum (and the other main local languages in East Timor) does create problems for the rule of law, access to justice in the courts and law enforcement agencies.

    Best regards,


  3. There should be greater emphasis on Tetum being used in the legal process, partly on practical grounds, partly constitutional grounds, and partly cultural grounds - there is less reason to use Indonesian (or English). Given the large amount of modern vocabulary in Tetum which is derived from Portuguese (and much of that sharing the same Latin roots as equivalent English terms) Portuguese will not necessarily be sidelined.

    If people want to make Timor Leste a Portuguese-speaking society, the way to do it is through commerce and popular culture (bilingual newspapers and magazines, subtitled TV programmes and films) not through state institutions, which is no more practical than using Norman French or Latin in the English legal system.

    It is worth mentioning that in the UK, where there is a large number of Timorese migrant workers, there has been a need for Tetum translators and interpreters, as many speak neither Portuguese nor English. Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council in Northern Ireland even has a Tetum webpage -




1. The Rule of Law: Theoretical, Cultural and Legal Challenges for Timor-Leste




1. Justice for Serious Crimes Committed during 1999 in Timor-Leste: Where to From Here?

2. Joint Command for PNTL & F-FDTL Undermines Rule of Law & Security Sector Reform in Timor-Leste

3. Criminal Justice in East Timor and the Constitution of East Timor

4. Commentary on the Draft Arms Law in Timor-Leste

5. Deleted


1. The Law on Political Parties (No 3/2004) & the Decision of the Timor-Leste Court of Appeal in the case of Vitor da Costa & Ors v Fretilin

2. Ethnicity, Violence & Land & Property Disputes in Timor-Leste

3. East Timor: Reconciliation & Reconstruction

4. Legal opinion on the appointment of the Prime Minister and the formation of Government in Timor-Leste

5. A legal opinion on the Formation of an Unconstitutional Government in Timor-Leste

6. Commission for Truth Friendship East Timor Competing Concepts of Justice

7. 25th of May 2006 Massacre & War Crimes in Timor-Leste


1. Some Land Tenure Issues in Post-Conflict East Timor

2. Extradition from Indonesia to East Timor & the Serious Crimes Process in East Timor 1999 - 2005

3. East Timor: Internal Security, States of Seige & Emergency: A Note on the Constitutional Provisions & the Internal Security Law 2003

4. East Timor: The Constitutional Process Governing the Dismissal of the Government

5. Guidelines for Preparation of Outgoing Requests by East Timor for International Judicial Assisstance - Extradition Requests & Letters Rogatory - A Practice Manual

6. Roles of the President and the Prime Minister in the Current Constitutional Crisis in East Timor

7. Institutions & the East Timorese Experience

8. An Early Warning System for Timor-Leste: A Framework Concept of the Need & Possibility of an Early Warning System for the Timorese People


1. The Timor-Leste Maritime Boundaries Case

2. Deleted

3. On the occasion of the International Conference on Traditional Dispute Resolution & Traditional Justice in Timor-Leste

4. General Facts on the Timor Sea & Facts on the Negotiations on a Permanent Maritime Boundary between Timor-Leste & Australia

5. Deleted

6. Morality, Religion & the Law: Abortion & Prosititution in East Timor


1. A Note on Land Rights in East Timor (Indonesian Government Regulation No 18 of 1991 on the Conversion of Land Rights in East Timor) & the Purported Suspension of Article 5 by Government Regulation No 24 of 1992

2. UNTAET Land Policy

3. Some Observations on UNTAET Regulation No 27/2000 on the Temporary Prohibition on Transactions in Land by Indonesian Citizens

4. Sandalwood & Environmental Law in East Timor

5. Some Observations on the Report on Research Findings & Policy Recommendations for a Legal Framework for Land Dispute Mediation in East Timor

6. An Overview of East Timor's Law No 1 of 2003 on the Juridical Regime on Immovable Properties

7. Report on Research into Adat Land Law in East Timor

8. Short Analysis of UNTAET Executive Order No 2 of 2002 on the Decriminalisation of Defamation

9. An Overview of the Constitutional Drafting Process in East Timor

10. Some Notes on East Timor Government Decree No 1/2004 on the Orthographical Standard of the Tetum Language

11. UNTAET Guidelines for the Administration of Public & Abandoned Property by District Administrations

12. Tara Bandu: The Adat Concept of the Environment in East Timor

13. Finding Ways of Resolving Land Problems in East Timor