The Law and Happiness in Bhutan: A New Law School in the Land of the Thunder Dragon

This article was first published in the Harvard Law Bulletin
by Julie H. Case
Credit: Adam Dean. Princess Sonam Dechan Wangchuck LL.M. ’07 is honorable president of Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law, named after her father, the fourth king of Bhutan.

Among the rugged mountains and the swiftly flowing rivers of Bhutan, new legal institutions are taking root. Soon this small country—with just over 750,000 inhabitants—will open its first law school.

In recent years, the Himalayan nation, wedged between China and Tibet to the north and India to the south, has undergone significant political and cultural transformations. In 2006, the nation’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, announced that he would step down in favor of his son and he set in motion the drafting of a new constitution to replace an absolute monarchy with a constitutional one. In 2008, a new constitution was ratified. Now, nine years later, the Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law will open its doors to its first class in July.

GNH may sound a bit hedonistic to some, but its origins are Buddhist. It makes collective happiness the goal of government and emphasizes harmony with nature and traditional values. Where the United States has its “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Bhutan has the four pillars of GNH—economic self-reliance, environmental conservation, cultural preservation and promotion, and good governance.Envisioned by the current king to honor his father and his father’s guiding development philosophy for Bhutan, which he called Gross National Happiness, or GNH, Jigme Singye Wang­chuck School of Law will operate under the motto “Justice, Service, Wisdom.”

“The school is the means of bringing GNH and justice to fruition,” says Princess Sonam Dechan Wangchuck LL.M. ’07, honorable president of Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law.

Another Harvard Law School graduate, Stephan Sonnenberg ’06, has also been working to realize that goal. A former clinical faculty member at Harvard Law School, he was teaching at Stanford when he stumbled upon a notice that a school in Bhutan was looking for someone to start a clinical program. Bhutan had been on Sonnenberg’s bucket list for years, albeit mostly for the country’s mountains and renowned beauty. He joked with his wife about applying for the position, and she called his bluff. The couple and their two children have now been living in Bhutan since July 2015, and he has been helping to design the school’s curriculum and will teach alongside 10 other faculty members.

Click here to read the full article

Stephan Sonnenberg spent four years as a Clinical Instructor at HNMCP. Then, in the spring of 2016, he reached out to us to tell us about his new post at the JSW School of Law and to propose a clinical project and he soon became one of our clients. You can read more about that project here and here. Additionally, you can read Stephan’s published article on his work in Bhutan, “Building Capacity Without Losing Capacity: Legal Change and Dispute Resolution in Bhutan.”

Scroll to Top