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.



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