OTTAWA — The head of Amnesty International's Mexican branch is taking Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard to task for his comment Monday that Mexico's human rights record is moving in the "right direction."
"I beg to differ (that) Mexico is going in the right direction," Perseo Quiroz, Amnesty's executive director in Mexico, told The Canadian Press.
Couillard offered his assessment during a joint news conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who was in Quebec City to kick off three days of carefully choreographed North American leader summitry.
Pena Nieto was scheduled to dine with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau later Monday in Toronto before hitting the national capital on Tuesday for an official state visit.
The Mexican president will then join Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama for Wednesday's North American Leaders' Summit in Ottawa, commonly known as the Three Amigos, where climate and energy issues are expected to dominate.
Amnesty has been working to keep the human rights issue front and centre as the three leaders seek a public display of economic co-operation as a counterpoint to the trade protectionism and anti-immigrant sentiment that has marked this year's U.S. presidential race.
The White House, followed by the Prime Minister's Office, confirmed Monday that the "central focus" of the summit would be an ambitious new climate co-operation plan.
But the Mexican president was forced to confront the carnage from his country's decade-old war on drugs that Amnesty says has left 27,000 Mexicans unaccounted for, or "disappeared."
Last week, a group of female Mexican human rights activists urged Trudeau to push Pena Nieto on rights issues, citing a high level of sexual abuse of women by Mexican security forces.
Pena Nieto defended his country's plan to tackle corruption and human rights abuses on Monday.
"Our government has made an important effort to advance issues related to human rights," he said in Spanish, without elaborating. "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)."
Pena Nieto has pushed legislative reforms, but it simply hasn't been enough, said Quiroz.
"The problem with Mexico is the gap between what the law says, and what happens, is really big."
Couillard said human rights is an important topic for Quebecers, and one he raised with his guest.
"He has assured me, as he did with you a few minutes ago, that he is taking the right and appropriate actions now at the structural level to deal with the issue, which I think is also important for him and his government," the premier said.
"I think he has set the boat in the right direction, but of course this will take time and he needs the support of his allies to go forward and succeed."
Quiroz characterized Couillard's handling of the issue as merely "scratching the surface."
Rights issues are expected to take a back seat to pressing economic concerns in this week's meetings.
Britain's shocking vote Thursday to leave the 28-member European Union has rocked international markets and destabilized Europe, providing a sharp international contrast to this week's expected North American love-in.
Brian Deese, a senior adviser to Obama, confirmed Monday that Mexico will sign on to the methane reduction pact announced by Obama and Trudeau in March. The three countries will also commit to having 50 per cent of North American electricity generation come from renewable or emissions-free sources by 2025 — a potential boon to Canadian electricity exports.
The Prime Minister's Office confirmed the development after the White House conference call.
"We find ourselves now in a moment where the alignment in terms of policy goals and focus on clean energy between our three countries is stronger than it has been in decades," said Deese.
That unity will be in sharp contrast to the protectionist politics that have made 2016 a hot year on both sides of the Atlantic.
Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has advocated tough new immigration policies, border defences and possible new trade barriers, while Democratic rival Hillary Clinton is expressing reservations about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.
"It will be evident to Americans and people beyond that when North America speaks and acts as a single unit, it's really for the good of our citizens and citizens around the world," said Deese.