Mexico 'moving in the right direction' on human rights, Philippe Couillard says

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard says he raised concerns about Mexico's human rights record in a meeting today with President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Amnesty International critical of Quebec premier's comments

Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard held a news conference in Quebec City on Monday, June 27, 2016. (Clement Allard/Canadian Press)

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard says he raised concerns about Mexico's human rights record in a meeting today with President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Couillard says Mexico is "moving in the right direction," and the best way to ensure Mexico addresses some of its problems is to foster closer relations and encourage trade between the two countries.

"This question of human rights is important for Quebecers," Couillard told reporters in Quebec City on Monday after meeting with Pena Nieto.

For his part, Pena Nieto said he's committed to addressing some of the criticisms raised by human rights groups, which have been critical of the carnage and violence that has gripped Mexico since the start of its war on drug cartels a decade ago.

"Our government has made an important effort to advance issues related to human rights," he said in Spanish. "We still have work to do. However, I think we are moving in the right direction towards having human rights being fully respected (in Mexico)."

Amnesty International questions claims

Amnesty International says 27,000 people have gone missing in Mexico over the past decade during the violent drug wars that have engulfed parts of the country.

The head of the human rights group's Mexican branch took exception to Couillard's remarks.

Pena Nieto has pushed legislative reforms, but it simply hasn't been enough, said Perseo Quiroz.

"I beg to differ (that) Mexico is going in the right direction,"  said Quiroz.

"The problem with Mexico is the gap between what the law says, and what happens, is really big."

Neither leader provided details on Mexico's plan to protect human rights.

The problem with Mexico is the gap between what the law says, and what happens, is really big.- Perseo Quiroz, Amnesty International's Mexican branch

Quebec and Mexico in 2015 created a joint commission to push for more co-operation between the two jurisdictions on matters related to green energy, information technology, climate change and academia.

Couillard said corruption and human rights were not chosen as a major theme by the commission.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto was in Quebec City to meet Premier Philippe Couillard ahead of the Three Amigos meeting in Ottawa Wednesday. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

Couillard said what Mexico needs is for countries such as Canada to increase "exchanges" with the country.

"The best way to go forward is not to restrict but to augment trade," Couillard said. "Not to diminish but to increase our exchanges at the cultural, economic and academic standpoint. (Pena Nieto) is embarking on a very ambitious program of reforms and he needs the support of his allies to go forward and succeed."

Human rights first, protesters say

Isabel Sanchez, one of the organizers of a protest outside the Quebec City meeting, said there should be no economic or environmental agreement until human rights problems are addressed. 

"Much of the violence in Mexico comes from environmental issues," he said.

"People have to leave their houses because the water is polluted. So it [goes] hand in hand. If the human rights issues are not addressed, it's like a chain. It can't go on."

Climate change, visa requirements on agenda

On Wednesday, the Mexican president will join Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama in Ottawa for what's been dubbed the Three Amigos summit.

Last year's planned trilateral summit was cancelled by the former prime minister, Stephen Harper, amid the Canada-U.S. dispute over the Keystone XL oil pipeline and the continuing Canada-Mexico fight over visa requirements.

Keystone XL has since been formally rejected by the Obama administration, while Canada's visa requirement for visiting Mexicans remains an irritant that sources say won't likely be fully resolved this week.

However, Trudeau and Pena Nieto will be looking for a public display of Canada-Mexico co-operation — likely centring on climate action —​ as a counterpoint to the trade protectionism and anti-immigrant sentiment that have marked this year's U.S. presidential race.

Canada will also be pushing Mexico to fully reopen its market to Canadian beef, while Mexico is eager to see the Liberals fulfil their election promise and lift Canada's visa requirements for Mexican travellers.

with files from Marika Wheeler, Janyce McGregor and The Canadian Press