Where's Tony Benn when you need him? (Filip Radwanski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

October 8, 2021   6 mins

The United Kingdom may have left the EU, but we remain members of the entirely separate Council of Europe. The two organisations are easily confused — and no wonder. The similarly named European Council is an EU institution, though I suspect few would be able to distinguish the European Parliament (EU) from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

The Council of Europe is the older and larger of the two organisations. Founded in 1949, it now comprises 47 members: every European country with the exception of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kosovo and the Vatican City. On paper, it purports to have three core values: democracy, the rule of law and human rights. But in recent years it has found a new cause: the promotion of gender identity ideology across the continent.

When Maria Miller, then the Chairwoman of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, first introduced the concept of gender identity and sex self-identification to Westminster in 2016, she cited Council of Europe Resolution 2048 as good practice to be followed.

Resolution 2048 had been passed by the Parliamentary Assembly the year before by 68 votes to 23, with 12 abstentions. I was unaware of the vote when it took place — and I am transgender — so it is probably safe to assume that the few Europeans understood what was being decided.

And yet whether they realise it or not, Resolution 2048 remains influential to this day. After deciding that transgender people were subject to widespread discrimination and “frequently” targeted by hate speech, the Assembly called on member states to:

  • enshrine gender identity as a protected characteristic in anti-discrimination legislation and policies;
  • allow legal gender recognition on the basis of self-determination, and “make these procedures available for all people who seek to use them, irrespective of age” (meaning children were included);
  • pay for gender reassignment treatment and make that treatment accessible to adults and children alike and
  • re-educate society.

It was a veritable land-grab, and it was forged in collaboration with the transgender lobby. In particular, TGEU — or Transgender Europe — a well-organised NGO which at the time in 2015 had an annual budget in excess of €700,000 and employed at least 12 staff members.

On the day Resolution 2048 was passed, a TGEU policy officer highlighted how the organisation “is grateful for having been able to contribute to the work of the committee”. The TGEU co-chair added: “Now, it is upon member states to make this benchmark resolution a lived reality.”

So when Millar stood up in the Commons, she intended to do just that. In her opening statement, she called on the Government to change the Gender Recognition Act “in line with the principles of gender self-declaration” and create “a new protected characteristic of gender identity”. And in doing so, she opened up a can of worms that has far from improved the lives of transgender people.

On the eve of that debate, I warned that even if the proposed law was approved, it is impossible to regulate social groups that create their own boundaries. As I wrote at the time: “Transwomen in particular may find that goodwill is replaced by suspicion should abusive men spot an opportunity to exploit women’s spaces and protections.”

Self-declaration, to use Miller’s term, has not yet come to pass in any part of the UK — but the Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg remains as enthusiastic as ever: last week, its Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination Committee published a provisional report on “Combating rising hate against LGBTI people in Europe”.

The report’s “rapporteur” was Fourat Ben Chikha, a Green politician from Belgium. His report is worth reading in its entirety — not least because its Draft Resolution has now been adopted by the committee. The language is uncompromising: “[The Parliamentary Assembly] condemns with particular force the extensive and often virulent attacks on the rights of LGBTI people that have been occurring for several years in, amongst other countries, Hungary, Poland, the Russian Federation, Turkey and the United Kingdom.”

You could be forgiven for wondering why the UK would be lumped together with the likes of Russia and Turkey, two countries which have come in for international criticism for their treatment of minorities. There are clues in the test that follows:

“The Assembly condemns the highly prejudicial anti-gender, gender-critical and anti-trans narratives which reduce the fight for the equality of LGBTI people to what these movements deliberately mis-characterise as ‘gender ideology’ or ‘LGBTI ideology’. Such narratives deny the very existence of LGBTI people, dehumanise them, and often falsely portray their rights as being in conflict with women’s and children’s rights.”

It seems to me that such language is a veiled attack on those campaigns in the UK which have been openly critical of Resolution 2048 — organisations such as Woman’s Place UK and For Women Scotland, which are concerned about women’s sex-based rights. The draft resolution, in contrast, calls on member states to “amend antidiscrimination legislation as necessary to ensure that it covers all forms of discrimination, in all areas of life, based on sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics”. Sex, itself, is absent.

The explanatory memorandum that follows clarifies Ben Chikha’s thinking. Paragraph 52 concerns the United Kingdom. The emphasis is mine.

“In the United Kingdom, anti-trans rhetoric, arguing that sex is immutable and gender identities not valid, has also been gaining baseless and concerning credibility, at the expense of both trans people’s civil liberties and women’s and children’s rights. At the IDAHOT Forum 2021, the Minister for Equalities stated, in contradiction with international human rights standards with respect to the rights of trans people, ‘We do not believe in self-identification’

The ‘gender-critical’ movement, which wrongly portrays trans rights as posing a particular threat to cisgender women and girls, has played a significant role in this process, notably since the 2018 public consultation on updating the Gender Recognition Act 2004 for England and Wales. In parallel, trans rights organisations have faced vitriolic media campaigns, in which trans women especially are vilified and misrepresented.”

But as far as human beings are concerned, sex is immutable. That is a biological fact. I am a trans person and I live in the United Kingdom. I do not recognise the picture painted by Ben Chikha. Trans women are not being vilified and misrepresented; rather, the public is waking up to the fact that people cannot change sex, and disagree with outlandish claims. As for the memorandum’s later claims about increased levels of violence against trans people, it’s worth noting that its source is a Galop online survey based on 227 responses — of which only 147 declared a trans history; hardly the basis on which to drive the agenda across an entire continent.

So who is Fourat Ben Chikha, and how did he become so influential that his reports are adopted by a committee of the Parliamentary Assembly? Unlike the EU Parliament, there are no direct elections to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Its 324 members (and their nominated substitutes) are appointed by national parliaments. They attend week-long plenary sessions in Strasbourg, four times a year. The UK delegation comprises 18 MPs and peers from across politics.

Ben Chikha was nominated by Belgium, where he is a member of the Belgian Senate. But that body is not directly elected either. Its 60 members are either appointed by regional and community parliaments or co-opted. Ben Chikha was co-opted.

Tony Benn’s famous five questions have never seemed so pertinent: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?”

We can’t get rid of Ben Chikha, but he has the power to write reports and draft resolutions that affect, and should concern, us all. After all, in whose interests is he exercising power? He has certainly been talking to TGEU — and perhaps he has been talking to activist groups in the UK as well. What is clear, however, is that the British public is largely unaware of what he has been doing.

But that doesn’t appear to matter: his recommendations have been approved by his committee and the next step is the Parliamentary Assembly itself, where it will be debated at the next plenary which opens on 24 January 2022. There, Assembly Members such as Ben Chika would do well to remember that the Council of Europe was designed to be accountable to the people of Europe — a Europe that still includes the UK.

His report needs to be scrutinised, not nodded through, because the repercussions will be felt in the UK. Women’s sex-based rights are at stake. The British public might not care much about Strasbourg, but Resolutions of the Council of Europe carry weight in the minds of politicians. When neither Boris Johnson nor Keir Starmer are willing to declare that only women have cervixes, the situation is desperate. They must not be gifted a new Council of Europe Resolution to hide behind.

Debbie Hayton is a teacher and a transgender campaigner.