Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
I am pleased to appear before you today to discuss the human rights situation in Honduras. I will begin by describing the situation in the country, and then I will tell you what Canada is doing to help.
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, with 65% of its people living in poverty. It suffers from extremely unequal income distribution. The country also suffers from social inequality, high unemployment, poor health and education. More than 60% of all Hondurans are highly vulnerable to food insecurity.
I'd also point out that the GDP per capita in Honduras is $2,000. The total GDP for the country is $17 billion, in a population of eight million.
In addition, we'd like to talk a bit about the institutions in Honduras, which are in some cases weak. Impunity is pervasive and corruption is a challenge.
Corruption within the Honduran police force is a particular problem, which the Government of Honduras also recognizes. Largely because Central America is situated between the drug-producing countries of South America and the drug-consuming countries to the north, Honduras and its neighbours have been particularly affected by the growth of transnational drug trafficking, human trafficking, and the impact of organized crime. It's estimated that nearly 80% of all cocaine-smuggling flights departing South America touch land in Honduras before continuing northward.
Another element of the violence affecting Honduras is the presence of street gangs, known as maras, which rely on extortion and other forms of crime as forms of income. Honduras has more of these gangs than all other Central American countries combined, and their activities contribute to crime and insecurity in the country. Honduras now has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, at 81 per 100,000, as compared with 1.8 per 100,000 in Canada.
The forcible removal of the democratically elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, in June 2009 created one of the worst political crises in the country in several decades. Not only did it expose the fragility of the country's political institutions and exacerbate political cleavages, but many observers believe it created a security vacuum that allowed the powerful drug cartels in the region and from the region to firmly establish themselves in the country and expand drug transmitting and money laundering through Honduras. Indeed, this criminal element is a key driver of the worsening human rights situation in the country.
In the wake of the coup d’état, Honduras continues to suffer from political tensions and tensions between institutions of the state. This is also having a negative impact on the human rights situation. Honduras is also facing a serious fiscal crisis which threatens to eclipse security and other challenges if significant structural reforms are not made in the very near term.
President Lobo of Honduras recognizes that human rights and security are serious challenges. He has, we believe, made serious efforts to move Honduras closer to national reconciliation and help restore a sense of confidence in its democratic institutions.
These include the formation of a national unity government, which includes representatives of a number of political parties; the creation for the first time of a ministry of human rights and justice for Honduras; the creation of a commissioner for human rights; the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission following the de facto government period after the coup d'état; and the creation of a public security reform commission, which will oversee a major reform of the Honduras security sector, including the police. On the latter commission, the security reform commission, a Canadian—who is an employee of the OAS—is a member of this commission.
That being said, progress is slow in this very complex environment that I have described. Canada recognizes the serious human rights challenges facing Honduras. We view engagement rather than isolation as the best way to help Honduras meet its many challenges.
Honduras is a key partner for Canada in Central America. Our two countries have a broad and diverse relationship driven by a wide range of links and collaboration. This includes political dialogue, commercial trade and investment, people-to-people ties, and long-standing development cooperation.
CIDA has been present in Honduras since 1969.
Honduras is a country of focus for CIDA in the Americas, with programming that focuses on food security and children and youth, particularly in health and education. CIDA also supports a number of initiatives of Canadian partners in Honduras, including work on gender equality, human rights, labour rights and justice reform.
In addition, Honduras benefits from several CIDA-funded regional initiatives, including a project through the Organization of American States to increase the effectiveness of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in processing cases more quickly and efficiently.
Canada, for its part, played a leading role in efforts to reach a peaceful negotiated solution to the 2009 political crisis. We were particularly active during the period between the coup d'état and the inauguration of President Lobo in January 2010 when Minister Peter Kent, our minister of state for the Americas at the time, travelled to the region to support negotiations to restore democracy. With Government of Canada support, one of our retired senior Canadian diplomats, Michael Kergin, former ambassador to the United States, served as one of the international commissioners on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which in July 2011 issued a set of recommendations for follow-up and reform.
We are now working as a country on several fronts to help the Honduran government reform its institutions and meet its security and human rights challenges. For example, Canada provides bilateral and regional security assistance to Honduras. Our Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force, known as START, is supporting follow-up to recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on reparations to victims of human rights abuses that occurred during and following the 2009 political crisis.
DFAIT's anti-crime capacity-building program has provided more than $2.2 million in programming to Honduras since 2009 for projects to equip and train police and other investigative units. This support includes providing to the Honduran national police training on the use of special investigative techniques, specifically surveillance and wiretap, as well as equipment, including video surveillance equipment, all with a view to promoting their CSI capacity and combatting crime. This project draws on the expertise of the RCMP and other police experts and is delivered by a very credible organization, the Justice Education Society, a Vancouver-based organization that promotes Canada's justice system and judicial cooperation at home and abroad.
In addition, Foreign Affairs, through various multilateral programs including those of the OAS, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Organization for Migration, and Interpol, is providing assistance to Honduras.
Canada belongs as well to a group of 16 donor countries. This group comprises the major donor countries and international financial organizations that provide assistance to Honduras. Through this group, we share information and regularly express our concerns about human rights abuses, which we report to the Government of Honduras. Canada has an open and frank dialogue on human rights issues with the Government of Honduras, and we raise our concerns at the highest levels.
When Prime Minister Harper visited Honduras in August 2011, he and President Lobo announced the conclusion of negotiations on a Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement. Once implemented, the FTA will encourage increased trade and investment between the two countries. We believe increased trade and investment would contribute to the creation of new economic and employment opportunities, and in turn might help alleviate poverty and generate new wealth for Hondurans.
New economic growth could help efforts by the Honduran government to create a more prosperous, equitable and secure democracy with greater respect for human rights.
In conclusion, I would point out that Honduras is a prime example of Canada's engagement in the Americas, which seeks to increase hemispheric economic opportunity, to address insecurity, to advance freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, as well as to build the foundations for increased engagement.
Canada looks forward to continuing its support of work with Honduras and its partners in the hemisphere. As Prime Minister Harper told a news conference during his visit to Honduras, “We strongly believe that prosperity, general and widespread, is essential to any nation's full enjoyment of peace, freedom and democracy.... And if prosperity is the key to these great objectives, so is trade the key to prosperity.”
Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today.
Thank you for your invitation. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.