Mr. Speaker, this debate should not be about ideology, it should be about people: the people of Colombia whose lives have been ripped apart and turned upside down by civil war and narcopolitics. The good, decent and proud people of Colombia deserve a better future and the kind of economic opportunities provided by legitimate trade.
Colombia has made real economic, social and security progress in recent years, but it is a fragile progress, under the constant threat of FARC terrorists, drug gangsters and hostile attacks from the Chavez regime in Venezuela.
Colombia's external trade has helped real people piece their lives back together despite these threats. These are people I met, like Valentina, who lived on her family's farm until 10 years ago when FARC murdered her brother and drove her family off the farm. Valentina now works in the flower trade and helps to provide food and a home for her family.
I met Maria who was pregnant with her first baby 14 years ago when FARC murdered her brother and mother and took their farm. Maria and her three children and husband now live in a house they own because of exports and a housing subsidy from her Colombian employer. Maria dreams of her children getting the education that war and narcoterrorism have denied her.
Carlos became a member of the paramilitary because it was the only clear economic opportunity he had as a youth. His violent life in the paramilitary fuelled by drug money was cut short when an ambush attack rendered him a paraplegic. Today, as part of the Uribe government's paramilitary demobilization efforts, Carlos is now involved in peace and reconciliation and he is getting an education.
Carlos told me he believes the FTA agreement with Canada is needed to give young Colombians legitimate economic opportunities, which he was denied, to save them from the violence of the narco-economy.
It is about people like Gerardo Sánchez, Luis Fernando, Walter Navarro, Colombian union leaders who support the FTA with Canada and believe it will be good for Canada, good for Colombia and good for their union members.
Colombia is a country with good people, tremendous natural beauty and resources. It is a good country where things have gone terribly wrong for over 40 years. It has been paralyzed and divided by a civil war that began along ideological lines, but it has more recently evolved to a narcowar with no ideological fault lines, only greed, desperation and violence.
Since 2002, there has been tremendous progress. Progress has been made particularly in terms of security. Eight years ago people were afraid to walk the streets of Bogotá and 400 municipalities were controlled by FARC.
There needs to be more progress, but the progress has been steady. The Uribe government's progress on security is one of the reasons it enjoys a 60% approval rating. Success is not where one is at, it is how far one has gone from where one started. Based on any reasonable analysis, the Uribe government has made progress.
Still, more needs to be done in Colombia, and they need our help. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, evil flourishes when good people do nothing.
If we refuse to engage a country like Colombia that is making progress, where civil society leaders, unions and government and victims of both paramilitary and FARC guerilla violence are all trying to move forward, and if we isolate Colombia in the Andean region and leave Colombia exposed and vulnerable to the unilateral and ideological attacks of Chavez's Venezuela, we will be allowing evil to flourish.
Canadians, as good people, cannot morally justify doing nothing. If any member of Parliament or any Canadian is concerned about human rights in Colombia, we have an obligation to engage Colombia more deeply.
The FTA establishes an ongoing rules-based system to monitor and help govern and improve labour rights, human rights and environmental progress in Colombia. Labour rights and labour rights issues in Colombia have occurred in the absence of a free trade agreement. There is already a commercial relationship between Canada and Colombia, but there is little in terms of a rules-based system to guide that relationship.
SNC-Lavalin just opened up an office in Bogota. Brookfield Asset Management recently established a $500 million fund to invest in Colombia. Again, this is occurring outside of a robust rules-based trade agreement.
The question we must ask ourselves as Canadians is how a new free trade agreement, with the most robust labour and environmental provisions of any trade agreement that Canada has ever signed, can do anything but strengthen our capacity to positively influence human rights and labour rights in Colombia.
In late August the member for Toronto Centre and I completed a four-day visit to Colombia. We met with civil society groups, union leaders, trade industry representatives, UN and OAS officials. We met with senators, economists, think tanks, as well as President Uribe and members of his cabinet. We visited a flower production facility and a project supported by MAPP-OAS, Mission to Support the Peace Process, an OAS organization in Medellin. We met with both supporters and opponents of the free trade agreement, and we sought out both sides of the debate.
On balance, most individuals and groups, including human rights NGOs, believe in the ratification of the free trade agreement with Canada. They do not believe this agreement would have a negative impact on economic or human rights conditions in Colombia. Many believe the agreement could in fact improve Canada's monitoring of labour and indigenous rights through its rules-based framework and the two side agreements on labour and the environment.
We saw first-hand the challenges faced by the Uribe government in its fight against drug production and trafficking, the FARC and emerging criminal gangs.
We met with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights representative, Christian Salazar. We discussed with Mr. Salazar cases of false positives or extrajudicial executions. He told us how the UNHCHR is working with the ministry of defence towards establishing an independent monitoring system to help uncover other possible cases and prevent future ones. He told us how violence against trade unionists has decreased significantly over the last three years with the demobilization of paramilitary groups. In his view the Colombian government has made progress in its fight against impunity by increasing the number of cases being investigated. At the same time he cautioned us about former paramilitary members regrouping into criminal groups. He welcomes the Colombian government's recent invitation to participate in the investigation of these criminal groups.
We met with members of the second commission on international affairs of the senate. Some senators were in favour and some were against the FTA, which frankly demonstrates that Colombia has a well-functioning democracy.
We heard from Senator Pinaque. He occupies one of the senate seats reserved under the constitution for indigenous representatives, which is more than we do in Canada for indigenous peoples. He expressed concerns that he has not seen economic progress for indigenous people in Colombia. The concerns he expressed were legitimate, the same concerns we hear in Canada from aboriginal and first nations people: the need to ensure that economic progress comes with equitable distribution. These are the kinds of concerns we are dealing with in Canada as we ensure that first nations and aboriginal communities are full partners in developing resources in Canada. Frankly the challenges we face in Canada around economic engagement of our aboriginal and first nations communities are the kinds of co-operation and dialogue that could benefit both Colombia and Canada. We both face similar challenges on how to ensure that economic growth happens equitably and is shared with our first nations people.
The majority of the senators we met with expressed confidence that the FTA with Canada would help create jobs and prosperity for Colombians. The agreement would help Colombian producers who export to Canada while lowering import costs for all producers, especially the manufacturing sector.
One senator from Cúcuta on the Venezuelan border stressed the need for Colombia to diversify its trade relationships beyond Venezuela and Ecuador in order to mitigate the risk, particularly from Venezuela and the Chavez regime, of shutting its borders unilaterally and ideologically to Colombian exports. Canada faces a similar need to diversify our trade relationships, but for different reasons. We simply cannot isolate Colombia in the Andean region with the Chavez regime being as dangerous as it is.
Most of the senators felt that the FTA would improve labour conditions in Colombia through increased investment and economic engagement with Canada. They see Canada as a positive force. They believe that Canadian companies have been strong practitioners of corporate social responsibility, and they believe there has been progress in the protection of unionized workers and their leaders. Eighteen hundred union leaders are currently under special protection, full-time security provided by the Government of Colombia.
There has been progress in the disarming of paramilitary groups. There has been a reduction in violence overall and specifically violence toward trade unionists. The senators also spoke to us about the tripartite commission in Colombia that is made up of government, unions and employers. This commission, under the supervision of the ILO, is helping Colombia comply with its international labour the ILO commitments. At the 2009 annual meeting of the ILO, the ILO noted that progress is being made in Colombia.
Finally and most importantly, most senators acknowledged that a FTA with Canada would strengthen and improve living conditions in Colombia. It would help reduce poverty, prevent the resurgence of illegal armed groups, and help prevent more Colombians from entering the narco-economy.
We met with a group of Colombian economists who spoke in favour of a rules-based free trade agreement with Canada. They emphasized Colombia's need to move forward with this FTA, particularly now that countries like Chile and Peru have successfully ratified FTAs with key trading partners of Colombia including Canada. They stressed the importance for Colombia to diversify its trade relationships, again away from countries like Hugo Chavez' Venezuela. The Chavez threat to Colombia was a common theme repeated to us throughout our meetings in Colombia. We also learned that FARC guerrillas are increasingly being based in Venezuela, that they are being harboured by the Chavez regime to continue their attacks on Colombia and on companies and individuals in Colombia.
The labour movement is supported, in fact, by several private sector unions in Colombia. The labour movement in Colombia represents 6% of the workforce and the opposition to this agreement largely comes from the public sector components of that labour movement. As such, these public sector union members in Colombia have nothing to lose in pursuing an ideologically rigid anti-free trade position, but those who have the most to gain from the FTA are the workers currently in the informal economy which represents 56% of the labour force. These Colombians may be able to join the formal economy if Colombia's exports and foreign direct investment continue to grow.
There is general agreement among the economists that the security situation in Colombia has improved dramatically under the Uribe government and that the demobilization of paramilitaries is on track. During our trip to Colombia, we met with civil society groups focused on human rights. We heard concerns about former paramilitary members in Colombia now reorganizing as criminal gangs involved in the drug trade. We met with a representative from Colombia's national indigenous organization who spoke about the need for greater consultation with indigenous communities over investment and free trade, and the protection of biodiversity.
Human rights groups told us that Canada's FTA with Colombia needs to be robust in areas of labour rights. During our trip, we met with union leaders and industry representatives. We learned that much of the narco-trafficking is in large cause because in poor parts of Colombia, particularly in rural communities, there is no other opportunity but the narco-economy and that legitimate trade opportunity is required. Many Colombians feel that the FTAs will lead to work in the legal economy, that trade is the best way to move Colombia forward. They believe that FTAs will not only lead to increased protection of Canadian investment but also increase protection for Colombian workers.
We met with Canadian private sector firms regarding corporate social responsibility. They view the FTA with Colombia as not just protecting Canadian investment but in improving their capacity to effect positive change as Canadian practitioners of corporate social responsibility in Colombia. Our mining and extraction companies in Colombia are guided by strong principles of corporate social responsibility. Canadian companies like Enbridge have won labour safety awards. Enbridge has been recognized for human rights training that is has provided to security personnel which are required to protect its investments and its workers against FARC.
During our trip, we heard repeatedly how the involvement of Canadian corporations in the Colombian economy has raised corporate social responsibility standards in Colombia. Canadian entrepreneurs in Colombia are making a real difference in ensuring that Colombian labour standards continue to progress. The fact remains that labour laws in Colombia are actually stronger in many areas than they are in Canada.
The challenge is around enforcement. Colombia needs more inspectors. There are only 430 labour inspectors in the entire country, but the Canadian government is providing funding to significantly increase the number of inspectors and that needs to be a priority for us.
Unlike other countries in the region, in Colombia 85% of royalties paid by the Canadian extractive firms go back to local communities. These royalties help these communities pay for social investments like health, education, and infrastructure like roads and safe drinking water.
We met with think tanks in Colombia to discuss the challenges on peace, security and human rights including labour rights. Again, it was felt that Canada could help as a bridge builder, that there is a toxic relationship now between governments and many of the unions, organizations and the NGOs, and that Canada could in fact be a very positive bridge builder between these groups by being a responsible corporate social citizen in Colombia.
Outside Medellin we met with flower cultivation factory workers, 500 workers in fact. As part of Asocolflores, the national flower production association, this flower factory has made a huge difference in providing employment to people who need it, people who were displaced from their lands by the drug trade, people who did not have any other legitimate opportunities until this company provided them, through trade, with the opportunity to improve their living conditions and those of their families and to strengthen their security.
We met with union leaders from the private sector and public sector in Medellin. A majority of them in fact supported the FTA and viewed it as being essential to strengthening Colombia's standard of living. They characterized their views as not ideological but pragmatic, recognizing that globalization is unavoidable and a rules-based FTA such as this one with Canada can be beneficial.
We participated in a session convened by the OAS-MAPP, Mission in Support of the Peace Process with victims, ex-combatants and local institutions. We discussed the need and the important role of the OAS and Canada's support in terms of the reintegration process in Colombia. Victims and ex-combatants talked about the challenges they face in returning to their communities.
Now is the time for Canadians who are sincerely concerned about the well-being of the Colombian people to economically engage them, not ideologically abandon them. Evil flourishes where good people do nothing. Legitimate trade can help the people of Colombia replace the forces of evil with the forces of hope. Now is the time for the good people of Canada to reach out to the good people of Colombia, to help them build a more peaceful, more prosperous and fairer future.