The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) says he is “rethinking” his decision to name Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe a goodwill ambassador after a global outcry.
The 93-year-old leader was given the position, which is bestowed on personalities who highlight “important health issues,” at a WHO conference on non-communicable diseases in Montevideo, Uruguay, last week.
WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom told the conference that he was honoured to have Mugabe serve as an ambassador. Dr Tedros, a former Ethiopian foreign minister, also said that Mugabe could “influence his peers” and praised Zimbabwe as a “country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies”.
But not everyone is in agreement with the WHO’s boss. Some 24 health organisations from around the world, including the World Heart Alliance, Cancer Research UK, and the Healthy Latin America Coalition, issued a statement last Friday, saying they were “shocked and deeply concerned” due to Mugabe’s “long track record of human rights violations”.
International watchdog, UN Watch, described the global health agency’s choice of Mugabe as its envoy as “sickening”. Governments have also slammed the appointment.
Britain said Mugabe’s appointment was “surprising and disappointing” and added that it risked overshadowing the WHO’s global work.
The United States, which has imposed sanctions on Mugabe for alleged human rights violations, said it was “disappointed”. “This appointment clearly contradicts the United Nations’ ideals of respect for human rights and human dignity,” a US State Department spokesperson said.
“This selection underscores why the United States continues to push for U.N. reform and leadership actions that uphold our shared UN ideals.”
Dr Tedros Adhanom, the WHO’s first African director-general, says he is now having a rethink in light of the criticisms.
Mugabe, 93, is blamed in the West for destroying his country’s economy and numerous human rights abuses during his decades in power. He has also been slammed for muzzling the press by threatening journalists reporting on protests with imprisonment.
Adira Kallo with agency reports