When it gathered in Strasbourg on Tuesday to condemn “the extensive and often virulent attacks on the rights of LGBTI people”, the Council of Europe singled out a small collection of the most inhospitable countries. It contained the usual suspects — Russia, Turkey, Poland, Hungary — but also a more surprising addition: the United Kingdom.
The UK has left the European Union, but we remain a member of the Council of Europe. The CoE is an older and larger organisation — hence the inclusion of Russia and Turkey — and is built around the European Convention on Human Rights. This week’s meeting revealed just how empty some of those human rights have become.
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The title of the resolution passed by its Parliamentary Assembly was noble enough — “Combating rising hate against LGBTI people in Europe” — but, as ever, the devil was in the detail. As well as conflating the UK, where LGB and trans people are well-protected, with the rather different situation in parts of Eastern Europe, the resolution quietly erased sex from its list of protected characteristics.
Deplorably, sex was not even mentioned in respect to refuge shelters. Victims, the CoE ruled, must be protected against “re-traumatisation on the grounds of their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics” — but not their sex.
It then got worse: the resolution further demanded that member states “refuse to provide funding to local, regional or national authorities or other State or non-State actors that deny the human rights of LGBTI people, and to withdraw such funding if it has already been granted”. This was, in effect, a call for governments to turn their backs on single-sex provision.
Let’s be clear: the LGBTI community is made up of people whose human rights deserve to be protected. But other groups also have human rights, and sometimes rights need to be balanced. When vulnerable women need single-sex provision, they must not be expected to share with members of the opposite sex, however we might identify.
It shouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility to create additional spaces for transsexuals like me so as to assure everyone’s rights. Yes, it might cost more money — but this resolution was driven far more by ideology than economics. A whole paragraph was devoted to stamping out what its author perceived to be 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’”.
It was the kind of statement trotted out in student debates — and you could be forgiven for thinking its impact will be just as small. After all, CoE Resolutions are not binding on member states, and I suspect that few Europeans care enough to know that its Parliamentary Assembly even exists, less still the business conducted by the 324 representatives drawn from national parliaments (including 18 UK members from the Commons and the Lords).
The truth, however, is that it does wield an influence over us all: when issues such as gender identity reach national parliaments, CoE resolutions allow politicians to present their case as a fait accompli. Indeed, when Maria Miller first introduced the concept of gender self-identification to the House of Commons in 2016, she cited: “Resolution 2048 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.”
That isn’t to say that all politicians subscribe to the CoE’s transgender agenda. On Tuesday, five members of the UK delegation tabled 10 amendments in an attempt to rescue the resolution. Just three managed to find their way into the final text. The first, Amendment 11, crucially inserted the word ‘sex’ into paragraph 12.1:
“amend criminal legislation as necessary to ensure that its provisions with respect to hate crimes clearly cover all offences committed against a person or group of persons based on their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics, include proportionate and dissuasive sanctions, protect victims’ rights and make provision for them to receive compensation”.
Amendments 12 and 13 ensured that sex would be protected elsewhere in reference to the criminal law.
In a powerful yet conciliatory speech, Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi introduced the 10 amendments. She skewered the most egregious failings of the resolution and the accompanying report that has been forwarded by Fourat Ben Chikha, a Green politician from Belgium. Antoniazzi was clear in her objectives: “We need transparency… I hope to amend the resolution to reflect the reality of the situation.”
Why indeed had Ben Chikha shackled the UK with Hungary, Poland, the Russian Federation and Turkey when reporting on hate in Europe? Without any context, anyone reading his proposal might reasonably imagine that those five countries were hotbeds of anti-trans hatred. In his report, Ben Chikha cited a 2021 Annual Review by ILGA Europe — an NGO which advocates for the “human rights and equality for LGBTI people at European level”. The ILGA review does contain a raft of tables and charts — but their evidence points to a reality somewhat different from the fantasy Ben Chikha presented to the Assembly.
As Antoniazzi pointed out: “The [ILGA] Review links the data source, Rainbow Europe. In the rank order of 49 European countries, the UK was placed fifth in respect of hate crime and hate speech. I want to underline that, it was fifth.” Not the fifth worst, but the fifth best. The table cited by Antoniazzi andplaced Malta at the top, with the UK only four places behind, ahead of France, Germany and Ben Chikha’s Belgium. Turkey, Poland and Russia languished at the foot of the table.
What these figures actually mean is open to discussion: do they reflect law and policy, or the experience of LGBTI people in society? But either way, there was nothing to suggest that the UK had a particular problem. The UK nation was defamed in this report, and Antoniazzi was correct to point it out.
Lord Blencathra, who spoke after Antoniazzi, was equally forthright:
“In my years serving in this honourable assembly, I can say that the report by Mr Ben Chikha is unique. Unique, because I have never before seen such a biased distorted and utterly wrong work of fiction than his comments about the United Kingdom. If [the resolution] goes unamended then it will bring this assembly into disrepute… What it appears to be suggesting is that UK society suffers from bigotry by allowing an open discussion about introducing new laws about self-identification of gender.”
Even worse, perhaps, is the message it sends to LGBTI people suffering appalling treatment in Eastern Europe. In January 2019, it was revealed that around 40 LGBTI people had been imprisoned in just one month — two of whom reportedly died under torture. How can the situation in the UK possibly be comparable? Women speaking up for their rights in the UK should never be conflated with concentration camps in Chechnya — but that, it seems, was Ben Chikha’s intent.
Antoniazzi’s proposed remedy was straightforward: “Delete the following words, and the United Kingdom.” What followed next was anything but. It seemed at first that the amendment would be discarded without even being put to the vote. Antoniazzi needed the support of at least 10 colleagues. But under Covid regulations, this was a hybrid session and, in a display of anti-democratic farce, those logging in remotely were unable to register their support.
This led to a dramatic intervention by Lord Foulkes who interrupted the debate to express his frustration: “We raised points of order and we were ignored.” After he was supported by an unlikely alliance of Jeremy Corbyn and Lord Howell, a vote was eventually taken.
Yet it was lost by a margin of 61 to 24 — and the resolution was subsequently carried. Despite all the speeches, and all the facts and evidence presented from the UK, the verdict of the Parliamentary Assembly was blunt: “The Assembly strongly condemned ‘the extensive and often virulent attacks on the rights of LGBTI people for several years’ notably in Hungary, Poland, the Russian Federation, Turkey and the United Kingdom.”
So for now, at least, we can only take solace in the fact that the arguments were made and there was a debate. Perhaps even more significantly, the debate was recorded for posterity, so that it can be rekindled as soon as it reaches Westminster, Holyrood and elsewhere. For make no mistake: this resolution will reach these quarters, where it will be used by those who hope to paint the UK as a country riddled by anti-trans prejudice. But when that happens, there will be one glaring omission in their arsenal: the truth.