Mr. Chairman, again, it's a pleasure to be here with my colleague, Jean-Benoit Leblanc, who is director for regional trade policy in Foreign Affairs.
I am going to make some comments in English and some in French, and I will be pleased to answer your questions in the official language of your choice.
As you know, on June 28, 2009, the democratically elected president of Honduras, José Manuel Zelaya, was forcibly removed from power. Although political tensions in Honduras had been mounting in the months leading up to this event, few anticipated such a dramatic outcome.
At that particular time, I was Canada's ambassador to Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and I happened to be in Tegucigalpa on that day as Canada was about to take over the presidency of the G-16 group of donors in Honduras, Honduras being one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.
The international community, including Canada, quickly condemned the coup d'état and called for President Zelaya's immediate reinstatement. Our then Minister of State for the Americas, Peter Kent, issued a strong statement condemning the coup and calling on all parties to show restraint and to seek a peaceful resolution to the situation that respected democratic norms and the rule of law, including the Honduran constitution. Several days later, on July 4, a special session of the Organization of American States took place in Washington, attended by Minister Kent, at which the OAS members, including Canada, unanimously moved to suspend Honduras from the organization. Canada was to play an active role in the debate at the OAS, carving out an important role for our country in the coming months.
I thought it was also important to come today, Mr. Chairman, after having heard the comments from the Honduran non-governmental organizations and the Canadian non-governmental organizations, to provide a bit more perspective on Canada's role.
During the political impasse, the international community, including Canada, worked diligently to resolve the crisis and help Honduras get back to democratic and constitutional normality. To that end, two high-level OAS missions were sent to Tegucigalpa in August and October 2009, and Canada took part in them.
Canada lobbied in favour of a negotiated solution to the political crisis in respecting the rights of Hondurans and asked for peace, order and good governance.
Canada also joined the international community in initiating sanctions against the de facto government, which took over power after President Zelaya left the country, including by pausing our military cooperation with Honduras and pausing government-to-government official development assistance.
Despite this concerted effort by Canada and other key players, the extreme intransigence of the de facto government, and I believe the actions and rhetoric of President Zelaya, prevented a compromise solution from being reached.
On November 29, 2009, five months after the crisis began, Honduras held regularly scheduled general elections. Despite less than ideal conditions, the elections took place in a relatively peaceful and orderly manner and were generally considered free and fair by the international community. Porfirio Lobo, of the opposition National Party, emerged the clear winner in the elections. In those elections, about 50% of eligible voters took part. The election totals, in terms of the numbers of votes received by President Lobo, were the highest for any election in Honduras' history since the 1980s when the country returned to democratic rule.
Since his inauguration on January 20, 2010, President Lobo has taken a number of important steps towards re-establishing democratic order and achieving national reconciliation. This includes the formation of a multi-party unity government that includes presidential candidates from the opposition parties. It also includes the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission, which will determine what led to the coup and what human rights abuses took place during the political crisis.
Canada continues to have concerns regarding the human rights situation in Honduras and over the level of impunity. Although tensions have subsided somewhat under the Lobo administration, as we heard a couple of weeks ago, human rights abuses have continued and formal complaints have actually increased. Our officials continue to receive reports of civil society organizations being harassed and of attacks on social leaders who are often identified with the opposition to the former de facto government.
Furthermore, at least seven journalists were murdered in 2010. Canada is very concerned over these cases, and we've said so publicly, not just for the human impact but also for the negative effect it has on freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
We maintain an open channel to express our concerns to the Government of Honduras, both publicly and privately, regarding the human rights situation in that country. We've undertaken formal statements of concern during the United Nations universal periodic review of human rights in Honduras. We're in regular consultation with the range of actors in Honduras on this situation, and we raise our concerns. Our new ambassador to Honduras has met with key Honduran officials, including last week with the new Minister of Justice and Human Rights, which is a new cabinet position created by President Lobo, as well as with the Attorney General of Honduras to discuss the human rights environment and Canada's views.
Finally, as a member of the G-16 group of donors, Canada works closely with other like-minded partners such as the European Union, the United Nations, and the United States to monitor and improve the human rights situation in Honduras.
After the inauguration of President Lobo in early 2010, Canada took the decision to normalize relations with Honduras. We believe that continued isolation only hurts the most vulnerable people in the country and that engagement rather than isolation is the best way to promote change in that country.
Canada also feels that the time has come to welcome Honduras back into the OAS in order to strengthen the Honduran democratic institutions, to promote a political dialogue, to deal with human rights violations and to help Honduras achieve its security and development program. The forcible removal of former President Zelaya created one of the worst political crises in Central America in several years. We were extremely disappointed that the coup could not be reversed, and that President Zelaya was not reinstated before the end of his term.
However, on many fronts, Canada's role in Honduras was a considerable success in very difficult and tense circumstances. There was a very real threat that the situation in Honduras could spiral out of control, leading to serious civil unrest, and a much greater death toll.
Neighbouring countries were also concerned that the conflict could destabilize the rest of the Central American sub-region. But the sustained efforts of the regional and international community and the constant call for calm by countries like Canada helped encourage peaceful demonstrations and ensure that both sides continued to dialogue rather than turning to more violent means.
It's noteworthy that today Hondurans from many walks of life comment very favourably on the Canadian role during the crisis. They have described Canada as having a balanced and positive position that sought to be constructive at all times. Canada worked very closely within the G-16 donor group as president of that group for the first six months of the de facto government to influence the process of reconciliation, to dialogue and engage with civil society and with the members of the congress in Honduras. I mention this because the donor group is very important. Honduras, being one of the poorest countries in the Americas, receives 18% of its national budget from official development assistance, and the total assistance is somewhere in the order of $600 million annually. After Haiti, which we just spoke about, Honduras is the second-poorest country in the Americas. So the donor role was very important, and Canada played an important role, including trying to advance the process of reconciliation between the de facto government and Zelaya's people, which was a process led primarily by the OAS but with support from Canada and other countries.
Canada's role did not go unnoticed by Hondurans, nor did it go unnoticed by our partners in the region, including the Lobo government. This is evidenced by the nomination of a Canadian, former diplomat Michael Kergin, who was our ambassador in Washington, among other important postings, as an international commissioner on the truth and reconciliation commission. This commission has been supported financially by Canada, and we see it as a very important step as it prepares to release its report on what transpired in the next several months. The commission has an important role to play in assisting Honduras to achieve national reconciliation and in allowing Hondurans to regain a sense of confidence in their country's institutions. We very much look forward to the commission's report, which is scheduled to be released this coming May.
Finally, if I could, Mr. Chairman, with our new Minister of State for the Americas, Diane Ablonczy, ongoing Canadian engagement will help ensure that Honduras returns to the inter-American community and moves closer towards national reconciliation. Through efforts in Honduras, we have advanced the government's Americas strategy. By enhancing our engagement in the Americas, we strengthen bilateral relations with our partners in the region, and with the OAS we've consolidated our reputation as a constructive multilateral player in the hemisphere.
Mr. Chair, I would be pleased to answer any questions the committee members may have. Mr. Leblanc is with me to answer any questions about trade.