OTTAWA - While Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff touted himself as the saviour of Canada's global reputation, his party was under fire Monday for supporting free trade with Colombia.

Furious human rights activists chided the Liberals for playing up progress in the Latin American country as the contentious deal proceeds in Parliament.

This, as Ignatieff vowed in a speech to reclaim Canada's place in the world as a global peacekeeper and poverty fighter.

Liberal trade critic Scott Brison stressed that the bill to legislate the Colombian trade pact is still to be scrutinized by the Commons trade committee. It will hear from witnesses on any human rights implications -- pro and con, he said.

Brison and Liberal MP Bob Rae visited Colombia this summer.

"We asked the hard questions," Brison said. "Even the human rights people we met with in Colombia who were opposed to the agreement could not identify how (it) can worsen human rights."

Deadly trade between narcotics "gangsters and guerrillas" is the greatest source of such abuses, Brison said.

"And the Colombian people will not be able to wean themselves from the dangers of the narco economy without legitimate trade.

"President (Alvaro) Uribe has made massive progress," Brison said of the Colombian leader. "His administration has made a hugely positive difference in the lives of Colombians.

"We can ignore them. We can isolate Colombia on ideological grounds. But that would be an extremely irresponsible position."

Paul Moist, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), said he visited Colombia too. Since that visit in the summer of 2008, two of the people he met with -- a trade unionist and the wife of an aboriginal activist -- have been killed, he said.

"This is a place where civil society activists are murdered with impunity," Moist said. "Nobody is brought to account.

"We're urging the Liberals to take a good, long, hard look at this. Because Canada's place in the world -- to quote Mr. Ignatieff -- won't be heightened by signing free trade agreements in countries where human and labour rights are non-existent."

Moist says both Ignatieff and Brison assured senior labour leaders last spring that the trade deal would not go ahead without an independent "human rights screen."

Indeed, Brison said last May during related debate: "We believe that a full independent human rights assessment, as recommended by the committee, should be provided by the government to Parliament."

Canada did about $1.3 billion worth of two-way trade with Colombia last year, including exports of heavy equipment, agricultural goods and paper products.

Gauri Sreenivasan, policy co-ordinator of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, said a Commons committee review won't cut it.

"That's not the same as an independent human rights impact assessment" led by a panel of experts tasked with reporting to Parliament, she said.

The New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois have both taken stands against the deal, making Liberal support crucial.

Sreenivasan suspects the desire of mining, oil and gas companies for "binding investor rights provisions to protect their investor interests" is what's driving the pact.

Canada's support of Uribe's regime could help green-light support from the U.S., Norway and other countries, she said.

She cited a Human Rights Watch report on a recent massacre in Colombia, along with an Amnesty International report in July that "has sadly shown deterioration rather than sustained improvement."

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights criticized the Colombian government last December for its public stance against human rights advocates on its own soil. The stigmatization of such groups puts their "life, security and valuable work at risk," it said.

In his own defence, Uribe told the Commons trade committee last June that those who claim to be victims of abuse are free to come forward. He said that he had eliminated the paramilitary threat in his country, and that most non-governmental organizations are free to work in Colombia.