Cynthia Chisom Umezulike is the President and Chief Consultant at the Global Human Rights Centre in London United Kingdom, leading the organisation’s vision to bring focus, clarity and a pathway to the three pillars and 31 standards of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In this role, she provides consultation and expert technical human rights advisory support to businesses, leaders, governments, NGOs and organisations worldwide to create impact and advance human rights due diligence ideas, action and advocacy methods in business supply chains.
A qualified Human Rights Lawyer and gender and women’s rights specialist with over a decade of experience in research, activism, advocacy, program development and implementation – advancing gender equality, providing tools to standardise gender-based violence prevention into policy and social development programs. She is the founding Director of the International Conference on Human Rights, Sustainability and Climate Change – a multi-disciplinary conference activating result-based sustainable solutions to environmental, climate change and human rights issues. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE-KORIEOCHA, she speaks on what shaped her activism resolve to fight gender-based violence and shares some success stories from the International Conference on Human Rights, Sustainability and Climate Change, which she founded.
Can you take us through your journey as the President and Chief Consultant at the Global Human Rights Centre (GHRC) London? (Including Challenges and Opportunities)?
The Global Human Rights Centre (GHRC) London is an organisation working to build and actualise rights-based business supply chains by implementing Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD), high-impact and evidence-driven research and delivering critical human rights in business education. We are also at the forefront of campaigning against gendered sexual violence, forced labour, modern slavery, inhumane and degrading treatments and workers’ rights in supply chains. As GHRC’s President and Chief Consultant, I provide executive leadership to shape the approval of programs on human rights in business, sustainability and climate change – delivering good governance procedures and leading the organisation’s vision and pathway to bring clarity and focus to the United Nations Guiding Principles 3 Pillars and 31 standards. In this role, I work with leaders, businesses, governments, NGOs and organisations worldwide to create impact and advance human rights due diligence (HRDD) ideas, actions and advocacy methods. GHRC’s opportunity for impact has exploded recently due to HRDD compliance in business supply chains becoming a mandatory standard in the United States, European Union and Germany. Businesses within these jurisdictions are now mandated to implement actions to mitigate potential human rights risks for workers.
The most significant challenges for most not-for-profit organisations are attracting and sustaining donor partnerships, grants and funding for research, fieldwork, reporting and campaigning. GHRC has had successful funding cycles, grant application processes and private donor boosts, but it still needs to be improved for a small/medium-sized not-for-profit organisation. Despite the challenges, implementing Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD) in business supply chains is critical and essential and should become mandatory in Africa.
You are so passionate about protecting human rights and gender issues. Did your upbringing and experience in life in any way influence this passion and career path?
Growing up, I first heard the words’ human rights’ whilst attending a Women’s Aid Collective (WACOL) interschool competition, where I emerged as the best student in written short stories/poetry. During the event, the founder of WACOL, a legal scholar and human rights activist, Dr. Joy Ezeilo, explained to students that we had inherent and inalienable rights (children’s rights) that our families and the state should not violate. At the time, a biological family member severely physically, emotionally and psychologically abused me, and it was ongoing and continuous between the ages of 3-16. For a child going through daily infliction of severe abuse at home, I held on to those words “human rights” as a beacon of hope and survival. In my most difficult times, I kept saying, “I have rights, and no one was allowed to violate those rights”. I vividly remember writing a petition against this abuser at 14 when I discovered Joy Ezeilo lived a few houses from mine, and I dropped the petition at her home. My child abuse experience and incidental brush with human rights have always shaped my activism resolve and career choices – shaping my unyielding fight against gender-based abuse and violence and leading human rights advocacy and campaigning impacts.
Could you share some success stories from the International Conference on Human Rights, Sustainability and Climate Change, which you founded, and how long have you held the Conference?
I founded the International Conference on Human Rights, Sustainability and Climate Change in 2018 to build a network, connecting voices and creating interdisciplinary dialogue on the people and planet – reinforcing that climate change is a human rights issue. In the last few years, we successfully pivoted this intellectually stimulating Conference as a platen for researchers, scholars, policymakers, activists, academics and non-academics to present their cutting-edge research, key findings, result-oriented solutions on the impact of climate change on the people’ socio-economic rights as recognised under International Human Rights law. Another key focus of the Conference is evaluating the garment supply chain industry’s contribution to climate change: it accounts for 10 percent of humanity’s carbon emissions and 20 percent of global industrial water pollution. It is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. This year’s Conference is with the support and partnership of the Global Human Rights Centre and the University of Buckingham Law School. Selected papers presented at the Conference will have an opportunity to be published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in an edited book collection.
What are your experiences as a Nigerian in London and Geneva? Do you face racial discrimination challenges, and how do you manage this?
I have experienced covert racism in some workplaces, which is usually disguised and subtle, allowing plausible deniability. I trained and received expert certification and literacy on racial equality, diversity and inclusion early in my career. I, therefore, can easily spot the implicit result of conscious and unconscious bias, passive aggressiveness, and microaggressions: gaslighting and explicit racism.
The truth is that systemic racism (covert or overt) exists in white spaces and is an intentional tool of oppression, and the best approach is to stand up to the racist even if you lose that employment. The fundamental reason why racism thrives is that people of colour must embrace white normative standards to forge ahead within those spaces. Most people who work within institutions have unintentionally confirmed or contributed to normalising the white experience because they do not want to challenge the power dominance, which can impact their career trajectory. Women of colour face triple these issues because there is a lack of admission that gendered racism is prevalent – engraved in sexism and inequality. In recent years, BAME-driven advocacy projects and diversity and inclusion rhetoric have exploded, including hiring racial equality to tackle systemic racism. However, I question the legitimacy of the PR-laden racial discourse programs and struggle to see how the system can change when the racist perpetrators remain at the tier helm of control. Human beings construct and perpetuate racism – the institution, organisation, company, or firm is the idealistic cocoon deliberately created to hide and protect the racists. I stand against and abhor oppressive systems and practices designed to foster an inequitable environment.
Comparing the United Kingdom to Nigeria, do you think we have enough laws in Nigeria that address gender issues? If we don’t, what laws would you suggest the Federal Government introduce to help protect women against violence?
Violence against women and girls is labelled a national threat in the United Kingdom. At the highest level, there is a commitment to implement active actions, strategies, and measures in legislation, regulations and policy to enforce protection. Nigeria lacks the highest resolutions in tackling gendered violence, especially domestic homicide, sexual assault and rape, honour-based abuse and coercive behaviours that deprive liberty. The first step for Nigeria is to collect data on the extent of violence against women and girls, including developing a prototype dashboard that connects all evidence, data and statistics from across government agencies, academia, law enforcement and NGOs. The outcome of the data analysis will then inform government actions of publishing a strategy to help drive policy that tackles violence against women/girls, introducing advanced protective measures in legislation against sex-based harassment. Domestic violence in Nigeria is gender-specific; women in the lowest household income brackets suffer this abuse. However, they are inclined to suppress the trauma because of the pre-conditioned African mentality that shames women into silence, including the overarching falsehood to paint the image of ideal family life. Specific legal provisions must criminalise and prohibit physical, sexual and psychological violence in all forms whilst socio-economically empowering vulnerable women in local communities and providing them with the proper literacy tools to emancipate.
What is the greatest virtue a modern woman should possess?
Contentment is the greatest virtue a modern woman can possess. In a contented life, I am hyper-independent and do not over-extend myself to gratify anyone’s needs or expectations. I have the autonomy to direct my life at the pace I want and how I want. I own my voice and narrative and refuse to be suppressed and relegated to the background in all areas of my life. Discontentment removes moral standing and creates the gluttonous attitude and pitfall of never being satisfied. In today’s digital media world, young women are losing themselves by being jealous of the curated lifestyles of others. The proverbial saying “Greed will imprison us all,” is true to form – a woman’s heart led by greed and covetousness follows the trajectory to her downfall. A contented woman is in charge – she is in unmitigated control of her welfare and well-being and never loses herself to the luminous objects thrown her way.
How do you deconstruct toxic masculinity today?
I grew up in a household where the most powerful and wealthiest men visited, felicitated and confabbed with my father. I observed the interplay of power, commodore, control, rivalry, conflict and sometimes resolutions. My earliest imprint of masculinity came from a comparative assessment of the mentality, movement, dynamics and politics that constructed notable men. Coming into my own as an adult, I worked at a hangar where the world’s richest and most famous people landed their private jets and made London their luxurious stomping ground. My view of masculinity was always one dimensional, built on the outside façade of how the 1% come into the picture in public – distinguished and salable. The outcome of my backend early childhood and adult observations meant I could inherently deconstruct men’s masculinity by looking beyond the carefully presented façade. The answer to deconstructing masculinity lies in separating the man from his carefully curated shield of enigmas – wealth, power and luminous objects to impress the sycophants. Does the man still have the same presence, essence and value without that superficial armour? – The awful truth is that most men don’t. Traditional and toxic masculinity as a social construct thrives in Nigeria because it is ingrained in the patriarchal dimensions that govern the society. Men exert their chauvinistic dominance through control and feminist suppression, and these exaggerated toxic traits are culturally accepted, as women willingly cater to the enigmas. I acknowledge that my liberal feminism has cultural limitations; however, we must never forget the powerful excerpt from the book “The Passport of Mallam Ilia by Cyprian Ekwensi: “When Men Were Men and Women Were Won by Men Who Deserve Them”, and not by men who oppress them.
You are a prolific activist campaigning for climate sustainability. What are the dangers of not having laws that foster the proliferation of Climate Sustenance?
The United Nations Climate Change Report 2023 explicitly reiterated the human responsibility for global heating, and the failure of state parties to implement and enforce law remains the foremost challenge to mitigating climate change. Denmark created a forward-thinking blueprint that delivers actionable rules on climate change, and this step shows that legislation can help tackle climate change by mandating governments to take legally binding measures to reduce emissions and support net-zero targets. I pertinaciously advocate for states/governments to recognise and accept that climate change is a human rights issue and then take practical steps to understand the implications of climate crises on the socio-economic welfare of all citizens in those regions. In recognising the rights-based significance of climate change, we draw attention to the wilder angles of impacts – environment, habitant loss geopolitics, economies, migration and life expectancy. The United Nations Climate Change and Human Rights Report noted that when the effective enjoyment of human rights becomes threatened, laws should prevent further risk to human beings’ fundamental rights to life, health, food and adequate standard of living.
You previously headed the Legal and Business Governance of Europe’s most prominent aviation firm, Diamond Hangar Aviation Stansted. Can you briefly speak on factors that make Nigerian airlines pay the highest insurance premiums on aircraft worldwide?
My role as the head of legal involved defining the companies’ more comprehensive legal function with a focus on business efficiency, commercial agreements, commercial transactions and corporate compliance. Including providing pragmatic legal advice to management and directors on responding to legal issues and mitigating risks in business operations in Africa, Asia and Europe markets. Nigerian airlines pay the highest insurance premiums because of higher risk assessment outcomes related to safety standards, capabilities, and logistics, evidenced by previous unfavourable experiences operating in that region.
As a woman into many things, how have you been able to build such a rich work experience in your profession and simultaneously manage your personal life?
I am competitive, career-driven and exceptionally (sometimes obsessively) focused, so I do not have a personal life. Active career women can’t have it all, and I have accepted that what makes me happy lies in the four walls of my offices in London, Geneva and Buckingham – there, I focus on feasible actions that change lives and leave a long-lasting impact. Simplifying my personal life to zero is the key to my success; I own entirely my time, mind, body and space and do not share it with anyone, negating unnecessary and unsolicited distractions to derail my path to greatness.
Photo Credit: Zoe Griffin