World Health Organization bows to pressure, revokes Mugabe's appointment

Phill Magakoe  AFP  Getty Images

Robert Mugabe has been named a goodwill ambassador, on the issue of non-communicable diseases.

Activists, public health experts and key WHO donors like Britain, Canada and the United States have denounced a prospective role for Mugabe within the agency, saying Zimbabwe's healthcare system has collapsed under his 37-year rule.

But Tendai Biti, a former finance minister in Zimbabwe, said Mugabe's appointment showed the World Health Organization did not understand the country's political reality.

Opponents were angered by the appointment, pointing to the health crisis in the African country under his leadership, as well as the human rights abuses perpetrated by his regime.

Mr Tedros, an Ethiopian who became the WHO's first African director-general this year, had said Mugabe could use his role "to influence his peers in the region".

"We cannot take these institutions seriously", said Obert Gutu, spokesman for the main opposition the Movement for Democratic Change.

Health and human rights leaders chimed in.

"The Mugabe appointment, coming at the end of (Tedros's) first 100 days, was a misstep", the director of the Global Health Institute at Harvard University, Ashish K Jha, said in an email shortly before the WHO decision was announced.

Simon Harris, Ireland's health minister, added that the appointment was "offensive, bizarre".

Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980, is in increasingly fragile health and makes regular trips overseas for medical treatment.

Two dozen organisations - including the World Heart Federation and Cancer Research UK - released a statement criticising the appointment, saying health officials were "shocked and deeply concerned", and citing Mugabe's "long track record of human rights violations".

"I have listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns, and heard the different issues that they have raised", Ghebreyesus said.

The ambassadors hold little actual power.

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

"The government of Robert Mugabe presided over the dramatic reversal of its population's access to food, clean water, basic sanitation and health care", the group concluded. Mugabe's policies led directly to "the shuttering of hospitals and clinics, the closing of its medical school and the beatings of health workers".

Mugabe, 93, has always been criticised at home for going overseas for medical treatment as Zimbabwe's once-prosperous economy falls apart.

Foreign affairs minister Walter Mzembi said the United Nations health agency "benefited tremendously" from the original decision to name Mr Mugabe to the post because of the global attention that resulted. His repeated visits to Singapore have heightened concerns over his health, even as he pursues re-election next year.

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