Origins and use:
This is another seemingly innocuous concept that is open to a wide range of interpretations. China referred to this concept in its UN Human Rights Council resolution on “Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights”, which was again passed in 2021 and reaffirmed that the Council’s work should be guided by the principles of “universality, impartiality, objectivity, non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation”.
This language is lifted from the Council’s founding document, UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251, in which it is clear that these principles are key “to enhancing the promotion and protection of all human rights.” In the UNGA’s framing, however, constructive dialogue and cooperation are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end.
Furthermore, in China’s iteration the word “constructive” appears to take on a more loaded meaning, in opposition to so-called “naming and shaming” (that is, identifying and discussing “shameful” human rights violations by a given state rather than sticking to broad principles and themes). In this interpretation, dialogue would not appear to be considered “constructive” if it addresses specific concerns over human rights violations or abuses, or any practices that may damage China’s image.
In fact, the authorities have been quick to suppress information about matters of public interest – for example silencing Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who tried to issue a warning about the coronavirus outbreak in late 2019, and was immediately reprimanded by authorities in Wuhan for “spreading rumours” before contracting COVID-19 himself and dying in early 2020.
Implications for human rights:
Credible cooperation and dialogue on human rights require that all actors – not only states but also civil society organizations, human rights defenders, journalists and affected communities – can engage with international human rights mechanisms openly and honestly, without hindrance or fear of reprisals. Addressing, responding to, and contributing to accountability for human rights violations and abuses are a key part of the mandate of the UN Human Rights Council.
Without an international community willing to name, shame and impose penalties on states for violating the rights of people under their control, it would be virtually impossible to hold governments to account for human rights abuses such as those we see in Colombia, Ethiopia, Hungary, Russia, Myanmar, Syria and elsewhere. Instead, the victims of abuses by state forces or large corporations would be forced to pin their hopes on “constructive international dialogue and cooperation” to either end or resolve their plight.
The voices of civil society would be sidelined or silenced for not being “constructive”, and the United Nations would find it even harder to support and defend the voices of its own human rights experts and processes when a powerful member state is under review.