The World Health Organization has rescinded its appointment of Robert Mugabe, the longtime president of Zimbabwe, to a “goodwill ambassador” role.
WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus, known as Tedros, said in a statement Sunday morning that he had “listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns” before making his decision.
The appointment had provoked global head-scratching and outrage because of Mugabe’s track record of human rights abuses, including violent crackdowns on political dissent, which have earned Zimbabwe international sanctions.
The outcry rocketed around the world after this week’s announcement and seemed centered around one primary point: Can you be a “goodwill ambassador” if the world widely regards you as a violent, tyrannical despot?
Tedros, an Ethiopian who this year became the first African to hold the director general post, made the announcement earlier this week at a Uruguay conference on noncommunicable diseases, saying Mugabe would be an advocate for fighting diseases such as cancer and diabetes in Africa.
Tedros had described Mugabe’s Zimbabwe as “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the center of its policies” and told attendees that Mugabe could use the role “to influence his peers in his region” on the issue.
The Noncommunicable Diseases Alliance — representing a lot of the other people at the conference where Mugabe’s appointment was announced — immediately condemned the move.
NCD members were “shocked and deeply concerned to hear of this appointment, given President Mugabe’s long track record of human-rights violations and undermining the dignity of human beings,” the alliance said in a statement. “While we support WHO and Dr. Tedros in their ambition to drive the NCD agenda forward, we are unable to recognise President Mugabe as a champion for NCDs.”
The appointment “embarrasses” WHO and its director, said Iain Levine, program director for Human Rights Watch.
In a statement to the Associated Press, the U.S. State Department said “this appointment clearly contradicts the United Nations ideals of respect for human rights and human dignity.”
The unofficial response on Twitter was just as strong: “Who next, Kim Jong Un?” quipped one person, referring to the despotic leader of North Korea.
Hillel Neuer, the executive director of United Nations Watch and a human rights activist, wrote: “Shame on you, @WHO, for legitimizing brutal tyrant Mugabe, who devastated the health system of Zimbabwe & flies abroad for his health care.”
On Sunday, a representative from Zimbabwe’s government told a news organization that it respected Tedros’s decision to withdraw Mugabe’s appointment.
But the representative, Foreign Minister Walter Mzembi, told state broadcaster ZBC that Mugabe’s worldwide name recognition had already brought a lot of international attention to noncommunicable diseases.
“WHO ... has benefited tremendously from its decision in nominating President Mugabe to lead the fight against NCDs through media amplification of WHO itself, and curiosity by the general public on what really are NCDs, by tagging the name Mugabe to the debate,” he said. “On a name-recognition scale, this name beats them all.”
Many of the critics of Mugabe’s appointment found it odd that a man accused of destroying Zimbabwe’s health-care system is now speaking out on global health issues.
As the New York Times wrote in 2009, a delegation from Physicians for Human Rights “found that the Mugabe regime destroyed the country’s healthcare system and pursued policies that ruined what had been a vibrant agriculture, depriving all but a tiny elite of proper nutrition, water, and a sustainable livelihood. One result has been a cholera epidemic and the spread of other diseases.”
The hospitals in Zimbabwe have gotten so bad, many have said, that Mugabe flies to other countries for medical treatment.
A 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks said Mugabe was battling prostate cancer, according to Reuters. The cable said his physician urged him to step down from office to heal.
He celebrated his 90th birthday in a Singaporean health clinic. On state television, officials said he was “as fit as a fiddle” and that the out-of-country visit was for a long overdue cataract surgery. But he spoke slowly and had a “puffy” appearance, according to Reuters, adding to the rumors.
Goodwill ambassadors hold little power but usually travel the world, using their celebrity to champion their organizations’ key issues. Ricky Martin and Shakira have been goodwill ambassadors for UNICEF, for example. And Mugabe was slated to replace former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
But it’s not unheard of for goodwill ambassadors to have their positions taken away.
Wonder Woman was fired as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, for example, after an outcry that a woman in skimpy clothing who solves most of her problems with violence wasn’t a good role model for girls.