Mr. Speaker, I am pleased speak to Bill C-23, An Act to implement the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the Republic of Colombia.
I have a number of people who are concerned about this agreement, therefore I think a bit of historical information is important.
A year ago the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade tabled its report on the free trade agreement with Colombia. Out of respect for Parliament, the government ought to have responded to this. Concerns were expressed by the Standing Committee on International Trade, specifically the recommendation which asked for an independent comprehensive rights impact assessment. I believe a full independent human rights assessment, as recommended by the committee, should be provided by the government to Parliament before we vote on Bill C-23.
Colombia has faced years of internal conflict, where violence and human rights abuses have been perpetrated by paramilitary groups in the ongoing battles between the paramilitary and the gorilla organizations. These battles have been funded largely by the narco-economy, that is drug money.
In the last several years the Colombian government has made significant progress under President Uribe towards achieving security for the Colombian people. There have been significant reductions in violence and human rights abuses. The general murder rate has fallen dramatically and the International Crisis Group has noted, “since 2003 Colombia has witnessed a substantial decline in violence and kidnappings”.
This increase in security has helped pave the way for a stronger Colombian economy. From 2002 to 2007, the Colombian economy has grown an average of 5.3% per annum. However, we know there are still significant problems in Colombia, for example, violence and its root causes, poverty, the paramilitary groups and the illicit drug trade still remain.
It is a problem that in our trade and our aid policy with Colombia, Canada has a responsibility to engage and to work in partnership with the Colombian government to address these issues.
The recent economic progress that Colombia has achieved has been impressive in many ways, but it is incomplete and fragile. It is fragile for the basic reason that it still relies heavily on narco-economy. If Colombia is to achieve sustainable progress in human rights, it must expand its legitimate economy. A strong legitimate economy is required to fund social infrastructure, which will help to address the root causes of violence and to wean the Colombian people off the narco-economy.
Advancements in institutional building must carry on, whether at the political, judicial or administrative levels. On this front, concerns have been expressed regarding the suggestion that President Uribe may seek a constitutional amendment to secure an unprecedented third consecutive term as president.
In its May 14 issue, The Economist magazine ran an article entitled “Uribe edges towards autocracy”. The opponents of the third term extension argue that checks and balances in the constitution are designed for a four year presidential term and that an erosion of the separation of powers under Mr. Uribe would be aggravated by a third term.
The same article also recognizes President Uribe's accomplishments in the past, including the fact that, “Many Colombians credit Mr. Uribe with transforming their homeland from a near-failed state to a buoyant, if still violent, place”. The magazine concludes that, “If he doesn’t quit while he is still ahead, history may judge that Mr. Uribe began to undo his own achievement”.
It is important to ensure that there be no erosion in the progress that has been made so far, that there be no constitutional amendment. Respect for the constitution is paramount for any democratic state.
There has been progress made. There has been movement to demobilize the paramilitary, the economy has improved and people are themselves stating that President Uribe has transformed Colombia from a near failed state to a buoyant place, though not as non-violent as they would have expected.
As we move forward with Bill C-23, we should ensure we emphasize that this free trade agreement helps improve the living standards of the poor, particularly in the rural areas. To ensure lasting progress, Colombia must ensure that its economic opportunities and jobs are there for impoverished Colombians. If it does not happen, then the only jobs they might get are through the narco-economy or paramilitary. We have seen classic examples of this in Afghanistan.
To help the legal economy grow, we need to think of a broader range and a free trade agreement is an important aspect. Trade and investment and the right free trade agreement could help the people of Colombia diversify and strengthen its economy and society.
If we look at Canada's involvement in Afghanistan, for example, we have realized that development is one way of getting that economy out of its dependency on the poppy trade and the Taliban. Two-way Canada-Colombia merchandise trade in 2008 was valued at $1.35 billion. Approximately half of it was exports.
Canada and Colombia are not exactly each other's biggest trading partners. However, by putting in place a free trade agreement with Colombia, one has strong investment protection measures. A free trade agreement could act as an international signal that Colombia could attract and leverage legitimate foreign investment from all over the world. Therefore, it is a significant agreement to the people of Colombia and it is important that we send the right signals.
Increased international economic engagement with Colombia and the potential for increased political pressure that comes with it could have the capacity, with the right free trade agreement, to incentivize the Colombian government to pursue further reforms in support of increased security, human rights and economic growth. In other words, the right free trade agreement can help the Colombian government promote peace, stability and the rule of law.
As we discuss the ratification of this free trade agreement, we should recognize what role Parliament plays and what is not in the terms of trade agreements. It is our responsibility as parliamentarians to determine whether Bill C-23 in fact represents a solid, sound free trade agreement. Does this agreement adequately address the legitimate concerns of Canadians regarding human rights abuses, labour laws and environmental standards? Are these measures relative to the side agreements on labour and the environment robust enough?
We know, for example, that the labour co-operation agreement requires that each country protect its right of freedom to association, the right to collective bargaining, the abolition of child labour, the elimination of forced or compulsory labour, and the elimination of discrimination. We know that this agreement includes a complaint and dispute resolution process.
Would this process be legitimate and accountable? Those are the types of questions that we need to consider as a Parliament.
The government states that this process would, for example, allow a member of the public to file a complaint or request an investigation if Canada or Colombia failed to or was purported to have failed to live up to the agreement. Furthermore, the agreement would create an independent review panel that could impose fines on the offending country of up to $15 million.
The question we need to ask is this. Are these provisions sufficient? We need to as parliamentarians review and thoroughly analyze this.
As we study the legislation, we ask to call before committee recognized experts in these fields in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the labour and environmental provisions in this free trade agreement and its side agreements.
The Government of Canada, not the Parliament of Canada, negotiates trade agreements. The Government of Canada, not the Parliament of Canada, has negotiated this specific free trade agreement. It is not the role of parliamentarians to sit down with other countries to negotiate the free trade agreements. Trade negotiations are a function of the government and our public officials, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
However, our job as parliamentarians is to carefully consider the trade agreements before us and to determine whether or not they are in our national interest and whether or not the trade agreement, as written, reflects our values.
Therefore, the questions to ask are these. Is the Canada-Colombia free trade agreement, as the government has presented, which we are considering through Bill C-23, in Canada's best interest? Does it reflect our shared values, particularly in the areas of human rights? Will it achieve greater peace, prosperity and security for Colombians? Will it help us, as Canadians, partner with the Colombian people to develop and build their economy?
The U.S., our largest trading partner, has yet to ratify its free trade agreement with Colombia. It may in fact seek a renegotiation. The Obama administration has indicated an openness to a free trade agreement with Colombia but that may require a renegotiation and more robust agreements on labour and the environment.
How would this impact our position vis-à-vis Colombia and the U.S.? Should this affect the timing of our consideration of Bill C-23? These are the questions that must guide our deliberations during the debate today.
The Conservative government has still not formally responded to the report of June 2008, a year ago, of the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade. It is important that the government respond to the recommendations of the standing committee's report before it expects Parliament to vote on this out of respect for all parliamentarians.
The issue of violence in Colombia merits special attention and the resources available to the international trade committee ought to consider and assess the expected impact of this free trade agreement on the human rights situation in Colombia.
Proponents say that it would help, that in fact weaning the Colombian people off the narcotic economy with real economic opportunities is essential to moving forward. Some of the opponents, including some of the human rights organizations, say it will not help. In fact, it would make the situation worse.
We have a responsibility to drill down on the facts and to not be guided by ideology, either the ideology that free trade at all costs is the word of the day or the position sometimes taken by others that every free trade agreement is bad. We have to be guided not by ideology but by the real concerns expressed to us by the human rights community, the labour movement and others, and the concerns and support from people such as the agriculture and business communities, who see this as being an important opportunity for Canada.
Given recent developments, it would be important for the Standing Committee on International Trade to perhaps go to Colombia and see the situation on the ground firsthand, meet with the Colombian government and have these discussions. We need to have clearer discussions regarding the constitutional amendments. As parliamentarians, we must be able to satisfy that this free trade agreement and its side agreements will enable and not hinder progress on human rights, labour rights and the environment before we can support its ratification and send this legislation to the other place.
As we proceed with our deliberations, we must be very careful not to confound the issues of commercial trade with development aid. As parliamentarians, we must be clear that pursuing free trade with Colombia does not reduce the Government of Canada's responsibility to provide development aid to that country. We have to continue through CIDA to invest in and help the people of Colombia. A combination of trade policy and aid policy is important.
Canada is a country of great freedoms. The citizens are protected by laws that many governments do not extend. While we strive to protect the individual rights of Canadians at home, our efforts abroad are limited to leading by example. In order for us to engage Colombia on human rights issues, we need to do it through dialogue. Globally, Canada's experience has been that it is through a broader dialogue that human rights can be inculcated in those countries and their civil societies.
We in the Liberal Party have built our foundation on social justice and equality. This ethos is ingrained in our party, the party that is the party of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As members of Parliament, we must look at these broader terms of engagement before we make our decision.