Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-23, the Canada-Colombia free trade agreement implementation act.
The fact is that a year ago the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade tabled its report on the free trade agreement with Colombia, and the government ought to have responded to this report from the trade committee out of respect to Parliament. It ought to have addressed some of the concerns from the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade and responded specifically to the recommendation to have an independent, impartial and comprehensive human rights impact assessment. That would be out of respect for Conservative members of Parliament who serve on that committee, out of respect to New Democrat, Bloc and Liberal members who serve on that committee, and most importantly out of respect to the Canadians who have chosen this Parliament.
We believe that a full independent human rights assessment, as recommended by the committee, should be provided by the government to Parliament before we vote again on Bill C-23.
As we know, Colombia is a country that has faced years of internal conflict, where violence and human rights abuses have been perpetrated by paramilitary groups in the ongoing battles between the paramilitaries and guerrilla organizations. These battles have been funded largely by the narco-economy, by drug money.
In the last several years, the Colombian government has made significant progress under President Uribe towards achieving security for the Colombia 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 5.3% per year.
Canada has benefited greatly from this economic growth. Our exports to Colombia have increased by an average of 14% per year during this period.
However, still the violence in Colombia and its root causes, poverty, the paramilitary groups and the illicit drug trade, remain a significant problem. It is a problem that in our trade and aid policy with Colombia Canada has a responsibility to engage and to partner with the Colombian government to address.
The recent progress has been impressive in many ways, but it is incomplete and fragile. If Colombia is to achieve sustainable progress in the areas of human rights going forward, it must expand its legitimate economy. A strong legitimate economy is required to fund the social infrastructure required to address these root causes of violence and to wean the Colombian people off the narco-economy.
Advancements and institution building must carry on, whether at the political, judicial or administrative levels. On this front we are concerned about 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's article entitled “Uribe edges towards autocracy” noted that opponents to a third term argue:
...that the 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 Economist magazine has in fact recognized President Uribe's accomplishments in the past, including that:
Many Colombians credit Mr Uribe with transforming their homeland from a near-failed state to a buoyant, if still violent, place.
The magazine concluded that:
If he doesn’t quit while he is still ahead, history may judge that Mr Uribe began to undo his own achievement.
This is important, because this constitutional amendment is of great concern to us. It is of great concern globally, in terms of governance in Colombia. Respect for the constitution is paramount for any democratic state, any country, so we are greatly concerned with this.
The stakes are too high to allow the recent progress under President Uribe to be undone. Paramilitary groups must continue to be demobilized. The living standards of the poor, particularly the rural poor, must be increased. Lasting progress cannot be made without legitimate economic opportunity or jobs for the impoverished Colombians, whose only opportunity sometimes will be the narco-economy and the paramilitary groups. Our efforts to improve the quality of life in Colombia must never lose sight of the need to grow Colombia's legitimate economy. We recognize that a growing economy requires trade and investment, and the right free trade agreement could help the people of Colombia diversify and strengthen their economy and their society.
Two-way Canada-Colombia merchandise trade in 2008 was valued at $1.35 billion. Approximately half of that were exports, so Canada and Columbia are not exactly each other's biggest trading partners. However, by putting in place a free trade agreement with Columbia, one that has strong investment protection measures, our FTA could act as an international signal that Colombia can attract and leverage legitimate foreign investment from all over the world. It is a significant agreement to the people of Colombia, and it is important that we are sending the right signal.
With the right FTA, increased international economic engagement with Colombia and the potential for increased political pressure that comes with it could have the capacity 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 are discussing the ratification of this FTA, it is important that we recognize what the role of Parliament is and what it is not in terms of trade agreements. It is our responsibility, as parliamentarians, to determine whether or not Bill C-23 does in fact represent a solid and 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 labour and the side agreements on labour and the environment robust enough?
We know, for example, that the labour co-operation agreement requires that each country protects the 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? That is an important question 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 to request an investigation if Canada or Colombia failed to, or were 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. Whether these provisions are sufficient is a question that we, as parliamentarians, have to ask and analyze thoroughly.
As we study this legislation, we ought to hear from recognized experts in these fields in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the labour and environmental provisions in this FTA and its side agreement.
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 FTAs. 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, is the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement as the government has presented it, and which we are considering through Bill C-23, in Canada's best interest? Does it reflect our shared values, particularly in 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 their FTA 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 trade position vis-à-vis Colombia and the U.S.? Should this affect the timing of our consideration of Bill C-23?
These are questions that must guide our deliberations during this 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. I repeat what I said earlier to the minister, and in my remarks, that out of respect for all members of Parliament on that committee the government should respond before it expects us to vote on this.
The issue of violence in Colombia merits special attention and using the resources available to us, and we parliamentarians ought to consider and assess the expected impact of this FTA on the human rights situation in Colombia. Proponents say it could help, that in fact weaning the Colombian people off the narco-economy with real economic opportunities is essential to moving forward.
Some of the opponents, including some of the human rights organizations, say that it will not help and that it could make the situation worse. We have a responsibility to drill down on the facts and not be guided by either the ideology that free trade at all costs is the word of the day or that every FTA is bad, which the position sometimes taken by the New Democrats. We must be guided by the real concerns expressed to us by the human rights community, the labour movement and others, and the concerns and support from people in the agricultural community and the business community who see this as being an important opportunity for Canada.
Given recent developments, the trade committee should go to Colombia, see the situation on the ground first-hand, meet with the Colombian government and have these discussions. We should be expressing ourselves clearly on the matter of the proposed constitutional amendment that is being discussed now to extend President Uribe's government to a third term.
As parliamentarians, we must be satisfied that this FTA and its side agreement will enable and not hinder progress on human rights, labour rights and the environment before we can support its ratification. 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 would not reduce the Government of Canada's responsibility to provide development aid to that country. We also need to continue through CIDA to invest in and help the Colombian people. Therefore, a combination of trade policy and aid policy is important. Trade does not reduce the importance of aid to the people of Colombia.
CIDA has an important record in Colombia in terms of building institutions and providing access to basic social services for internally displaced persons and supporting efforts to promote human rights, particularly for children. These activities must be supported and continued.
Canadians are frustrated and I share their frustration with recent changes to CIDA's aid program in which Canada's Conservative government has blatantly tying aid dollars to its economic and political goals. It offends our shared values as Canadians that the Conservative government is in the process of withdrawing development aid from some of the poorest countries in Africa in order to redirect these moneys to more developed economies in Latin America. It offends us because it is contrary to the belief that the primary purpose of development aid is to help the poorest of the poor and to build their economies and societies.
However, as I said before, we must not confuse commercial trade with development aid. Increased economic engagement can play an important role in helping developing nations achieve greater and lasting prosperity but trade alone is not enough. It can and does usually play a positive role but it is not enough.
As parliamentarians, we can challenge this change and policy at CIDA but we must be careful not to take aim at the wrong target. Misplaced development aid is not a reason to oppose an increase in trade relations. As parliamentarians, we must oppose any attempt by our colleagues to evaluate this trade agreement purely on the basis of narrow partisan or ideological reasons. It is just too important a signal for the people of Colombia. We must take this very seriously and put aside partisan and ideological differences and ensure we are considering the facts and the views of the experts. We need to take the time to do this.
In the U.S., the Obama administration has moved toward a certain level of openness toward a free trade agreement but with the potential to renegotiate and to exact stronger and more robust conditions around labour and the environment. We need to ensure we are in communication with our largest trading partner, the Americans, to understand fully where they are going on this and to ensure that any FTA we negotiate with Colombia is at least as robust on the issues of human rights and the environment as ultimately the potential agreement between Colombia and the Americans.
The Liberal Party believes in the principles of free trade. We believe in economic engagement as potentially strengthening the engagement on human rights. It was the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau that opened up, strengthened and deepened economic relations with China. The only thing that Prime Minister Trudeau and Richard Nixon agreed on was the opening up of China. It was the Trudeau government, Mr. Chrétien's government and Mr. Martin's government particularly that deepened economic ties with China.
It has been the Conservative government that has damaged those ties with China, supposedly on the basis of human rights, but because of the Conservatives' mismanagement of our relationship with China, we actually have less influence on Chinese human rights now than we did four years ago and have also lost significant economic opportunities, particularly on energy and clean energy trade. We need to be consistent and the Conservatives have not been consistent in terms of economic engagement with China. They are taking a completely different approach with Colombia.
We will ask the tough questions on human rights when it comes to the FTA with Colombia. We will carefully examine this legislation to ensure this FTA or any FTA that we support with the Government of Colombia will protect and strengthen the human rights of the people of Colombia and help protect their environment.
We will do that as a responsible party. The Liberal Party of Canada believes in economic engagement and believes in defending environmental protection and fundamental human rights.