In the very near future, the “SLS” acronym may take on an entirely new meaning. With the inauguration of the Bhutan Law and Policy Project (BLPP), Stanford Law students lucky enough to participate in this endeavor may believe that they are in fact attending “Shangri La School” in Bhutan, a bucolic paradise where happiness matters.

Photo of Wells, Zapiain, and Jensen resting against rock
Chris Wells ’10, Laura Zapiain ’10, and Erik Jensen hiking in Bhutan (Photography courtesy of Chris Wells)

This landlocked Himalayan kingdom, bordered by China and India, is known for its spectacular geography, its unspoiled environment, and a historic resistance to modern influences—it was one of the last countries to allow access to television and the Internet. Its Buddhist heritage has resulted in the country’s decision to focus on increasing “gross national happiness.” The announcement that GNH should be valued more highly than GNP made waves in world media.

Bhutan is one of the world’s youngest democracies—having officially become a constitutional monarchy only in 2008—and its king (at 30 years old) is one of the world’s youngest rulers. The country held parliamentary elections under its first written constitution in 2008 after arranging for practice sessions to ensure that the population would understand the voting process. Bhutan is making a peaceful transition to democracy, along with a decision to promote economic development.

And that’s where Stanford Law School comes in. The BLPP will give Stanford law students the unique opportunity to assist Bhutan in its re-creation—and thereby to become part of the next, and perhaps most exciting, chapter in the nation’s history.

Photo of Dean Kramer seated with a Bhutanese man at a table, deep in conversation.
Dean Larry Kramer in discussion with host

As a new democracy, with administrative power now vested in a Council of Ministers, legislative authority resting with a newly elected Parliament, and a judicial system led by a new chief justice and Supreme Court, Bhutan is poised to become a significant presence on the international stage.

But according to Erik Jensen, the SLS lecturer in law who helped launch the Afghanistan 
Legal Education Project and is leading the BLPP, the success of this effort depends on the legal framework the country establishes now. “Bhutan’s rapid political, economic, and social transitions have placed tremendous strains on the nation’s legal system, which is not prepared to handle the sort of complex domestic and international commercial disputes now beginning to arise with increasing frequency,” says Jensen.

purpose of the BLPP is to help Bhutan address these very concerns, while giving Stanford law students an opportunity to research and advise the new government on a wide variety of issues related to its democratic transformation. 
Welcomed by His Majesty the King of Bhutan and the Bhutanese government, the BLPP is thus positioned to make a profound contribution.

But why a collaboration with 
Stanford Law School?

Two young Bhutanese boys, heads shaved and robed in red, walk along a grassy hillside.

James Beery ’70 is one of the reasons. Beery, an occasional visiting lecturer to Stanford Law and senior of counsel in the London office of Covington & Burling LLP, provided the government of Bhutan with critical legal advice in 2007, helping it set up a holding company of government-linked corporations in Bhutan. Beery poked his head into the dean’s office while visiting Stanford in fall 2007 and suggested that there might be an opportunity in Bhutan for the law school.

“The opportunity for students interested in law and development to experience this firsthand, while helping the government and people of Bhutan, was too unique and important to pass up,” says Larry Kramer, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean.

In turn, Kramer mentioned the opportunity to Jensen, who was intrigued. And while Jensen was attending a university presentation on Bhutan, the critical link was forged. He was seated next to Mark Mancall, a Stanford history professor emeritus and the foremost American scholar of Bhutan. Mancall is a Bhutanese citizen himself and academic director of the Royal Education Council of Bhutan, with responsibility for advising the king. Jensen and Mancall struck up a conversation, which led to a friendship and the eventual establishment of the BLPP.

Although the BLPP has just started work—it officially launched on a pilot basis in 2009 with limited one-time seed funds from the law school and two individual donors—it already has made tremendous progress toward its goals.

Following up in-depth background research done by students in Jensen’s “State Building and Rule of Law” workshop in fall 2008, Jensen traveled in January 2009 to Bhutan with 
Stephanie Smith, lecturer in law in the Gould Negotiation and Mediation Program at Stanford. There they conducted an initial site visit to meet with members of the judiciary, legal profession, and the private sector to learn how SLS could be of most assistance.

In August 2009, Kramer, Jensen, Smith, Janet Martinez, director of the Gould Negotiation and Mediation Program and a senior lecturer in law, along with six students, returned to Bhutan at the invitation of the chief justice and the Royal Education Council. Guided by what had been learned in the previous trip, the group led a series of workshops, kicked off by Kramer’s keynote address on constitutionalism. The workshops, which were attended by Bhutan’s chief justice, most of the country’s judges, lawyers, business leaders, and numerous government officials, focused on devising culturally appropriate options for alternative dispute resolution with and 
outside of formal judicial proceedings.

Photo of Martinez, rosy-cheeked and smiling, in a dance with locals.
Janet Martinez dancing with locals

Christopher Graham Wells ’10 was one of the students who attended the conference. He was particularly struck by the opportunity to engage with the people directly responsible for creating and implementing Bhutan’s constitution.

“It was as if I were speaking with the Bhutanese equivalents of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. And they were all very conscious of the impact their 
actions and thoughts would have on the future of the government and took that responsibility quite seriously,” says Wells.

Jensen pronounces this initial exploratory phase “wholly successful,” and with the support of His Majesty and the 
Bhutanese government and in close consultation with the Royal Education Council, the chief justice, the attorney general, and others, he and Martinez have developed an ambitious plan for the BLPP’s future activities. These range from launching a Center for Civic and Legal Information and Education to developing an arbitration act and an accompanying training program for judges and arbitrators.

Students already have begun work on some of these projects. And assuming future funding can be secured, many opportunities for Stanford law students to contribute to the development of Bhutan’s nascent democratic institutions lie ahead.