Mr. Speaker, Canada is one of the great trading nations of the world. That is why I appreciate this opportunity to speak today to the Canada-Colombia free trade agreement.
As my colleagues on this side of the House have repeatedly stated, this agreement is of critical importance to Canadian workers, businesses and investors as Canada emerges from the global recession. It will open up new doors and windows of opportunities at a time when Canadians need them the most. At the same time, this agreement is also a critical piece in helping Colombia establish lasting peace and prosperity for its citizens.
Let me begin by recognizing the significant progress that Colombia has made in recent years to overcome its troubled past.
Decades of internal conflict, much of it related to the international drug trade, have challenged Colombia's security and human rights record. While human rights and security challenges remain, the Colombian government has made substantial strides in recent years to overcome these challenges.
I want to say upfront that Canada supports Colombia's efforts to meet these challenges. Protection and promotion of human rights and the rule of law here at home and around the world are at the core of Canada's engagement with Colombia. Indeed, our government has made human rights a priority. Our government's vigilant stand against those who threaten the most basic of human rights has been recognized around the world in all our engagements.
The free trade agreement with Colombia, together with its parallel agreements on labour co-operation and the environment, is but one of several initiatives that support Colombia's efforts toward greater peace, security, prosperity and full respect for human rights. We can and should be proud of this record. Our government believes that engagement, rather than isolation, is the best way of supporting change in Colombia.
Lest there be any doubt, I want to emphasize that in recent years personal security in Colombia has improved. The engagement of the global community and international organizations has significantly improved the personal security conditions of the vast majority of Colombians.
Let me give an example. A couple of years ago, a Colombian citizen visited me in my office and we discussed some matters that were totally unrelated to this debate. However, before she left, I could not pass up the opportunity to ask her what things were really like in Colombia. I asked her to please be honest and tell us what the situation was like in that country. She said told me that over the last 10 years, its security had improved markedly. In fact, she said that her family, her neighbourhood and friends felt much more secure today than they did 10 years ago. This was an average Colombian citizen telling the truth about the situation in Colombia.
While there remains much to be improved in Colombia, its government has made considerable progress in its fight against the drug cartels and against paramilitary and rebel groups. In fact, we would be remiss if we did not take notice of the efforts that have led to the formal demobilization of over 30,000 paramilitaries and the weakening of the two primary guerrilla groups in that country. These are key developments in Colombia's efforts to break the cycle of violence.
Colombia also has a justice and peace law that provides the legal framework for truth, justice and reparations. Is the human rights situation in Colombia perfect? Of course not. What is important, however, is that we measure the significant progress that Colombia has made over the last 10 years. What is clear is that, more and more, Colombia is developing a measurable respect for the rule of law, a value that Canadians hold very dear. What we also should not forget is that Colombia is one of the oldest democracies in Latin America.
With the support of the international community, the Colombian government authorities and related civil institutions have undertaken a series of actions that are contributing to increased peace, security and prosperity in that country. It is vital for Canada and other free and democratic countries to pursue policies of engagement and support for peace in that country.
This free trade agreement helps us do just that. Engagement, rather than isolation, will be the key to a safer and more secure Colombian future. Canadians can be very proud of their role in assisting our Colombian partners along this path.
Canada closely monitors the human rights situation on the ground in Colombia and regularly raises issues concerning human rights in meetings with Colombian officials. In fact, Canada continues to be an active member of the Group of 24, a number of countries which facilitate dialogue between the government of Colombia and international and national civil society organizations. Indeed, in 2009 Canada and Colombia established formal senior level consultations on human rights and those discussions continue to this very day.
Canada maintains this open and frank dialogue on human rights with the Colombian government at the most senior levels. Our engagement in Colombia includes support for development, peace and security initiatives. In the last five years, Canada has disbursed over $64 million through the Canadian International Development Agency.
CIDA has gradually focused its programming on children's rights and protections, while also supporting economic growth opportunities that contribute to reducing poverty in Colombia. Our projects have also prevented the recruitment of children into illegal armed groups and ensure their reintegration into their communities.
Other projects have supported environmentally sustainable agriculture to provide alternative livelihoods to growing illicit crops for the drug trade. Indeed, sustainable agriculture, in turn, contributes to food security for the many poor communities in Colombia.
I also point out that Canada's global peace and security fund disbursed over $18 million in Colombia since 2006. This fund is helping to promote peace in Colombia and the region and is also promoting the protection of the rights of victims and the strengthening of the Colombian judicial system.
There is much more but, unfortunately, my time is limited. However, this agreement takes human rights very seriously. Indeed, Canada takes human rights very seriously. Our commitments under this agreement prove this fact.
At the same time as the free trade agreement with Colombia was signed, we also signed two parallel agreements on labour co-operation and the environment. These agreements commit both nations to work together to ensure high levels of protection for workers and the environment.
Canada believes that trade and investment liberalization can go hand in hand with labour rights and the environment. Indeed, engagement may be the very best way of moving countries that are in transition to a more robust environmental and human and labour rights regime.
Canada and Colombia also commit to providing acceptable protections for occupational safety and health for migrant workers and for employment standards such as minimum wages and hours of work. Failure to respect international labour organization principles and to enforce domestic laws is subject to penalties for violations, any penalties accrued to a special fund to be used to address and resolve matters identified through the dispute resolution process.
All of this is to say that protection and promotion of human rights are at the very core of Canada's engagement in Colombia. They are fundamental to the Canada-Colombia free trade agreement. As I said at the outset, we believe in the very positive role that trade and investment can play in a nation like Colombia.
Our approach of engagement offers an alternative to the protectionist, isolationist thinking that we see in some parts of the world and, indeed, in some parts of this very House from opposition parties. By promoting economic development and opening up new doors to prosperity, free trade agreements like this can strengthen the social foundations of countries. That is what we are doing in Colombia. For a country like Colombia, free trade can open up new avenues for success. It can create new jobs and provide a solid foundation for families to build a future.
I encourage the members of the House to support this very worthwhile agreement.