Building Capacity Without Losing Capacity: Legal Change and Dispute Resolution in Bhutan

Stephan Sonnenberg '06
Stephan Sonnenberg ’06

In the spring of 2016 HNMCP engaged with the newly forming Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law (JSW Law) to examine the practices of local, traditional dispute resolvers, and to help JSW Law think through how formal judicial institutions, which have been the subject of large-scale capacity building initiatives following Bhutan’s transition to democracy in 2008, can complement, rather than supplant, traditional modes of dispute resolution.

The project came to us through former HNMCP Clinical Instructor Stephan Sonnenberg ‘06. Stephan was appointed to the role of inaugural Faculty Member and Clinic Expert at JSW Law in order to design and implement all aspects of experiential legal education at the law school, scheduled to open in 2017.

After numerous consultations with legal practitioners and stakeholders across Bhutan, Stephan felt that JSW Law’s future alumni would need to know how to interact effectively with the country’s network of traditional dispute resolvers, and that JSW Law’s curriculum would need to include substantial offerings alternative dispute resolution, consensus-building, and dispute systems design. To that end, the school has committed to undertake a comprehensive legal needs assessment of the entire country of Bhutan, one component of which would be to document and analyze the varieties of dispute resolution practices in rural communities across Bhutan. As part of this initiative, Stephan crafted a project with HNMCP to interview relevant stakeholders and develop a survey of traditional dispute resolvers, which it piloted together with JSW Law in the Paro Valley last spring.

HNMCP Clinic Field Trip to Bhutan. From l. to r., Stephan Sonnenberg ’06, Alonzo Emery ’10, the Chief Justice, Drew Keneally, and Mushfiqur Chowdhury ’18 in the main Supreme Court courtroom.

Drawing on this experience, Stephan has published a scholarly reflection on the challenges to local, traditional dispute resolvers in a quickly modernizing Bhutan, urging policy makers not to turn their backs on centuries-old dispute resolution techniques in the name of ‘modernity.’

“If all goes well,” Sonnenberg writes, “Bhutan’s significant investment into its formal legal system will facilitate its continued development progress, and ensure that Bhutan’s record of promoting good governance, political stability, and the rule of law will continue to shine. But if things do not go well, this surge of institutional innovation and capacity building may also portend enormous social and legal confusion for Bhutan. This turbulence could be especially disruptive for those involved in the more mundane variety of disputes—those that have arisen predictably and across the generations as a result of simple human nature. It is unclear to me whether justice in Bhutan would be better served if the dispute resolution procedures that have evolved to handle those kinds of “mundane” disputes were slowly to erode due to a one-sided investment into Bhutan’s new, glossy, formalised, and yet largely untested “modern” Bhutanese legal culture.”

Read Stephan’s article, “Building Capacity Without Losing Capacity: Legal Change and Dispute Resolution in Bhutan,” here.

Scroll to Top