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East Timor Law & Justice Bulletin

This case reminds us of the problems of language and the law in East Timor. Under the Constitution, the official languages of East Timor are Portuguese and Tetum. But laws enacted by the Parliament and the Government are, when they are published at all, usually only published in the Portuguese language.

Other legislation requires that new laws be published in both of the official languages but this is not implemented as it should.

The practical problem is posed by the fact that less than 10% of the population of East Timor can understand Portuguese. In this regard, the Court's holding that the principle of legal certainty requires that ..legislation must allow those concerned to acquaint themselves with the precise extent of the obligations it imposes upon them, which may be guaranteed only by the proper publication of that legislation in the official language of those to whom it applies, is of particular relevance to the legal system of East Timor.

The most curious thing is that because new laws are not published and publicised in a language that is understood by the vast majority of the population, the principle of legal certainty has not found expression in the new legal system of East Timor notwithstanding the constitutional imperatives and the interventions and support of public and private international law and justice agencies since independence in 2002.

Legal certainty is one of the indispensable conditions for the effective rule of law, which has disintegrated several times since the restoration of independence with catastrophic and enduring consequences for the civil peace, political stability and democracy.

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