World Health Organization 'rethinks' appointment of Mugabe as goodwill ambassador after huge backlash

Robert Mugabe
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ROSLAN RAHMAN  Getty Images

Heeding the global outcry that resulted from the appointment of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Sunday that Mugabe's title would be rescinded. Tedros said he had consulted with the Zimbabwe government about his decision.

It said it had raised its concerns with Dr Tedros, adding: 'Although Mugabe will not have an executive role, his appointment risks overshadowing the work undertaken globally by the World Health Organization on Non-Communicable Diseases'.

"Dr. Tedros has frequently talked of his determination to build a global movement to promote high level political leadership for health", spokesman Christian Lindmeier said in an email.

World Health Organization director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus last week told a conference in Uruguay on non-communicable diseases that Mugabe, who was present, had agreed to be a "goodwill ambassador" on the issue.

The US ambassador to the United Nations during Barack Obama's administration, Samantha Power, tweeted: "Tedros will surely revoke awful apptmt of Mugabe as goodwill ambassador, but damage is done".

The British Government described Mr Mugabe's appointment as "surprising and disappointing, particularly in light of the current USA and European Union sanctions against him".

Zimbabwean activist and human rights lawyer Doug Coltart said on Twitter that a "man who flies to Singapore for treatment because he has destroyed Zimbabwe's health sector is WHO's goodwill ambassador".

Two dozen organisations - including the World Heart Federation and Cancer Research UK - released a statement slamming the appointment, saying health officials were "shocked and deeply concerned".

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The groups said they had raised their concerns with Mr Tedros on the sidelines of the conference, to no avail.

The main opposition party in Zimbabwe, MDC, described the appointment as "laughable".

United Nations agencies often name high profile personalities as goodwill ambassadors to draw attention to their work, including actress Angelina Jolie with the refugee agency UNHCR.

The ambassadors hold little actual power. The comic book heroine Wonder Woman was removed from her honorary United Nations ambassador job in December following protests that a white, skimpily dressed American prone to violence wasn't the best role model for girls.

"Zimbabwe's government has not commented on Mugabe's appointment, but a state-run Zimbabwe Herald newspaper headline called it a "new feather" in the president's cap".

Zimbabwe once was known as the region's prosperous breadbasket. "The Zimbabwe health delivery system is in a shambolic state, it is an insult", he told AFP.

The choice of Mugabe for the role has also angered opposition parties in Zimbabwe and human rights campaigners who accuse the leader of violent repression, election rigging and presiding over the country's economic ruin. Critics called the appointment "deeply disappointing", "offensive", and "bizarre" due to widespread reports his human rights abuses in Zimbabwe as well as his government's decimation to the country's economy, impacting its healthcare system.

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