Thank you, Mr. Chair, for the opportunity to add to the remarks of my colleague and to provide some insight on Canada's broader engagement in Colombia.
Canada has a long-standing, rich, and diverse connection to Colombia that includes a broad range of academic, cultural, and civil society exchanges. As we have reiterated over the course of this debate, we believe that trade and investment relationships serve to broaden this exchange in promoting shared values and best practices and creating new opportunities for people and communities to thrive and prosper.
Colombia has made important strides and shown great resilience toward mitigating the effects of the conflict that has plagued the country for decades. While annual statistics on human rights violations may fluctuate year to year, what we need to focus on is the overall trends, where from 2002 to 2009 Colombia has, according to most sources, including the United Nations and well-respected civil society organizations, greatly improved its performance in important areas such as the general security situation, violence towards unionists and community leaders, homicides, and kidnappings. This progress has been recognized by the international community and international organizations that are present in Colombia.
Colombia has an established democracy, a growing economy, strong institutions, and well organized and extensive civil society. The Government of Colombia has demonstrated its commitment to meeting the challenges it faces through transparent engagement and partnership with the international community. Colombia was the first Latin American country to invite the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to establish a field presence in the country. It has been present in the country since 1997. They have gone further and extended an open invitation to UN Special Procedures. As a result, in 2009 alone, Colombia received four UN Special Rapporteurs: one on extrajudicial executions, one on human rights defenders, one on the independence of the judiciary and one on indigenous peoples. This transparency and openness on the part of the Colombian government to evaluation is unprecedented.
Canada has a close working relationship with both the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, also present in Colombia. We receive regular updates on the human rights situation, and over the last three years, through CIDA, we have contributed to strengthening the capacity of the state and civil society to respond to the plight of internally displaced people. This includes helping to improve government policies and services to better respond to the needs of Colombia's most vulnerable and improving access to relevant and effective programs, while also strengthening mechanisms for the protection and realization of constitutionally enshrined rights.
United Nations agencies are convinced that real progress in this regard is being made by Colombia's national government, and this is thanks in part to Canadian support.
Though many challenges remain, Canada, the UN, the OAS and many other international partners are supporting Colombia's efforts to meet these challenges. Pursuing increased trade relations is only part of this process.
In addition to our efforts to promote greater prosperity and opportunity for Colombians, Canada has substantial development and peace and security programming activities through our Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force, which in turn complements the programs provided by CIDA. Canada's efforts in Colombia aim to reduce inequality and poverty and to strengthen peace-building efforts and respect for human rights. These efforts have amounted to $18 million since 2006.
These programs have helped promote peace and reconciliation in Colombia and the region, protect victims' rights and strengthen the country's transitional justice system. Projects also provide vital support to protect the rights of vulnerable groups including women, indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians.
In recent years we've seen that the Government of Colombia has taken positive steps that demonstrate its continued efforts to curb violence against trade unionists and fight impunity for the perpetrators of such crimes. Indeed, after her visit to Colombia in October 2008, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, while expressing her ongoing concern for the vulnerability of trade unionists, said she was impressed by the increased expenditure on government programs to protect and support vulnerable groups.
One of our current projects, through our stabilization and reconstruction task force, is a program coordinated by the United Nations development program. It will present recommendations to help minimize the impact of violence against union leaders and organized union members and seek improvements to the legislation protecting them. The project, which involves the participation of government, unions, and the international community, consists of a series of studies conducted by six reputable NGOs and peer-reviewed by the National University of Colombia on the nature of violence against trade union members in Colombia. Recommendations for public policy and protection programs for unionists will then be derived from these studies.
Canada is also supporting Colombia through the implementation of labour-related technical assistance projects to promote and enforce internationally recognized labour standards, particularly in the areas of labour inspection, social dialogue, enforcement of labour rights and occupational safety and health.
We also seek to partner with likeminded countries who have an interest in Colombia, to better leverage our efforts. To that end, Canada is an active member of the Group of 24, a group of countries which encourages and facilitates dialogue between the Government of Colombia and international and national civil society organizations working in the country. Within this group, Canada also actively participates in the human rights sub-committee, which focuses on improving conditions for human rights defenders and engaging with other sectors that have been directly affected by violence.
I've mentioned in the past to the committee the importance and the level of dialogue we're able to have with the Colombians on human rights issues. Not only does our embassy in Colombia closely monitor the human rights situation on the ground, but we also regularly raise issues concerning human rights in meetings with Colombian officials at the very highest levels. Most recently in December of 2009 the Minister of State for the Americas, Peter Kent, met with Colombia's foreign minister, Jaime Bermúdez, at which time they discussed human rights. That same month, our deputy minister of foreign affairs, Len Edwards, also travelled to Colombia for political-level consultations.
Whenever Canadian officials meet with their Colombian counterparts, we endeavour to ensure that human rights are on the agenda. The mature relationship Canada has with Colombia allows us to maintain this open and frank dialogue on human rights with the Colombian government at the most senior levels. As you know, our first successful round of bilateral human rights consultations took place last July, and we're currently exploring dates for this year's consultations. Both Canada and Colombia are committed to holding these consultations on an annual basis.
I'd like to close by saying that there remain great challenges to peace, security, and human rights in Colombia. We continue to monitor the situation closely and react immediately when violations take place. However, we recognize that the Government of Colombia is making efforts to improve the situation, and Canada wants to support those efforts. A strong social and economic foundation and respect for human rights are goals that Canada will continue to help reinforce in Colombia.