Mr. Speaker, over the past year I have received many letters and emails regarding the free trade agreement between Canada and Colombia. It is undoubtedly an issue that many Canadians care about. It is an economic issue, sustaining jobs in Canada and Colombia, and it is a moral issue when we consider the human rights situation in Colombia.
People are worried. They see the violence and conflict in Colombia. They worry that with this agreement, Canada is supporting and even encouraging these actions.
The reality is that in order to make positive changes in the world, we must get involved. The other opposition parties want to wait until Colombia figures things out for itself and becomes a model country before Canada signs anything.
However, the truth is Canada and Colombia exchanged over $1.3 billion in trade last year. Canadian businesses are taking note of this accord. With the signing of this agreement, Canadian entrepreneurs are prepared to make long-term investments that will benefit the Colombian people.
Canadian agricultural interests are supportive of this agreement. Canadian business organizations, including some members of the small business community, see the opportunities with this agreement. Other Canadian companies such as SNC-Lavalin and Brookfield Asset Management have opened new offices in Bogota and established a $500 million fund to invest in Colombia.
All of this is happening outside of this new agreement that we are supporting today. I say “we” because the official opposition played an important part in getting this agreement. Economics is the motor of trade, but we also have a duty to engage our economic partners on a human level. Sometimes people need to talk about other things before they get people to listen to what they have to say.
Human rights are at the root of our Liberal values, so in order for us to support this agreement, we needed to ensure that the economic agreement with Colombia would have a component that protects the right of Colombian workers and keep our companies out of human rights conflicts. That is why it was such a key element that our international trade critic, the member for Kings—Hants, broke the barriers of partisan politics and negotiated an amendment compelling each country to monitor and publicly report on how this free trade agreement impacted human rights both in Canada and Colombia.
In fact, under this new Liberal deal, Canada and Colombia must publicly measure the impact of free trade on human rights in both countries. This is the first such human rights reporting requirement for any free trade agreement in history. It imposes a new requirement on Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to focus on, collect and analyze information on the impact of the Canada-Colombia FTA on human rights both in Canada and in Colombia. This information must be provided to the Parliament of Canada in an annual report, which can then be used to guide Canada's foreign policy with respect to Colombia. In addition, the public tabling of the annual reports in Parliament will allow for greater scrutiny by all opposition parties and provide a transparent way for civil society organizations from around the world to access this data as they conduct their own human rights impact assessments.
The Liberal amendment for a human rights reporting requirement was motivated by a desire for greater public oversight in the area of human rights and a belief that human rights were deeply intertwined with economic opportunity. We recognize that human rights abuses in Colombia have largely resulted from violence fuelled by Colombia's illegal narco-economy, which in turn has been perpetuated by Colombia's endemic poverty, persistently high unemployment and insufficient social infrastructure. We believe that increased political and economic engagement can help address the root causes of violence and improve the human rights situation in Colombia.
This age of globalization is about opening up to the world and not shutting it out. I visited Colombia 15 years ago. Back then, like today, I saw a lot of challenges, a lot of problems with violence, and a lot of concerns regarding citizenship, but I also saw a lot of poverty.
Canada has a responsibility to share what we do well: not only our economy, but also our impact on human rights. That is our responsibility.
The Liberal Party believes Canada has a moral obligation to help Colombia continue to improve its human rights record. We must work with Colombia to strengthen its public institutions and create legitimate economic opportunities for all Colombians.
This free trade agreement, with the Liberal amendment establishing a human rights reporting requirement, will significantly strengthen Canada's ability to achieve these goals and engage Colombia on the issue of human rights. Furthermore, the Liberal amendment would provide Canadians and Colombians with an ongoing assessment of progress in this area.
Colombia is at a critical juncture in its history, emerging from decades of violence and civil war. The Liberal Party of Canada believes that countries like Canada can support Colombia on its path to peace, justice and reconciliation by helping to build and strengthen Colombia's public institutions and provide greater public oversight on the human rights situation in Colombia.
Canada must not turn its back on Colombia and isolate its people at this time. Rather we must seize this opportunity to open doors, to engage the people of Colombia and to work with them to break the cycle of violence and human rights abuses that prevents the country from reaching its potential.
I spoke earlier about how trade agreements make good business sense, but I must ask all members to consider the human dimension of this free trade agreement.
The Canada-Colombia free trade agreement includes the most robust agreements on labour co-operation and the environment that Canada has ever signed.
With the help of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, some improvements have been recorded in Colombia regarding those human rights, but there is still a long way to go. There are many obstacles in the way of progress such as poverty, resulting from persistent high unemployment rates in Colombia.
To increase trade, Canada can help build Colombia's legitimate economy, creating real jobs for Colombians, including the most vulnerable. We can provide opportunities that help wean Colombians off their illegal and violent narco-economy. At the same time, this free trade agreement can help strengthen the protection of Colombian workers. The Liberal Party believes that through free trade, Canada can help build Colombia's legitimate economy and create real jobs and opportunities for all Colombians, especially the most vulnerable.
It is important that Canadians know that this agreement is open to accountability. The annual reports analyzing the impact of this FTA on human rights produced to the House of Commons will be available to the public and will be debated at trade committee. Witnesses will be heard, both from Colombia and Canada, on an annual basis. We will deepen the transparency and accountability of this trade agreement. We believe it will actually set a precedent for trade agreements signed between countries around the world.
It is important that we engage Colombia and the Colombian people as a partner in progress, to help them achieve a more peaceful and prosperous future.
I believe this agreement, particularly with this amendment, will strengthen human rights engagement on an ongoing basis and ensure that this Parliament, on an annual basis, will receive a report on the human rights impact of the agreement and will help continue the debate, continue the engagement and strengthen human rights and labour rights in Colombia.
As Canadians, we have the tremendous luck to live in a country that is open, free from violent conflicts, civil war and torture, a country that is prosperous, environmentally conscious, and socially inclined. However, with that luck, comes great responsibility. We must keep the channels open and do the right thing for all Canadians and Colombians. This is where we turn our focus from just making our country a better place to making the world a better place.