WHO 'rethinking' Mugabe ambassador post

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The World Health Organisation says it is now “rethinking” its decision to make Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe a goodwill ambassador.

Director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was thinking again in light of the controversy caused by the announcement.

He wrote on Twitter: “I’m listening. I hear your concerns. Rethinking the approach in light of WHO values. I will issue a statement as soon as possible.”

Dr Tedros had announced the move at a conference in Uruguay and praised the African country for its commitment to public health.

rethinking mugabe ambassador
Robert Mugabe at the World Economic Forum in Durban
Video:‘We cannot understand Mugabe goodwill selection’

But critics say Mr Mugabe’s policy and his long record of alleged human rights abuses have had a disastrous impact on the health system – with medicine shortages and staff going unpaid.

Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, labelled the appointment “laughable”.

The British Government described it as “surprising and disappointing, particularly in light of the current US and EU sanctions against him”.

Number 10 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 WHO on Non-Communicable Diseases.”

The US State Department said the decision “clearly contradicts the United Nations’ ideals of respect for human rights and human dignity”.

rethinking mugabe ambassador
Mr Mugabe (L) and Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (R)
Image:Mr Mugabe (L) and Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (R)

Defending his decision, Dr Tedros said Mr Mugabe could use the role “to influence his peers in his region”.

In his speech, Dr Tedros described Zimbabwe as “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide health care to all”.

Dr Tedros is an Ethiopian who became the WHO’s first African director-general in July, replacing Margaret Chan who stepped down after 10 years of service.

UN agencies often pick celebrities as ambassadors to draw attention to issues of concern, but they hold little actual power.

Last year, the UN dropped the superhero Wonder Woman as an ambassador for “empowering girls and women” after the decision drew widespread criticism.