WHO ‘rethinking’ decision on Mugabe

Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe (photo by AFP)
Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe (photo by AFP)

The World Health Organization (WHO) will be reconsidering a decision to name Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe “a goodwill ambassador” after facing criticism.

The director-general of the United Nations’ health agency, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Twitter on Saturday that he understood the “concerns” and that he was “rethinking.”

“I’m listening. I hear your concerns. Rethinking the approach in light of WHO values. I will issue a statement as soon as possible,” Tedros said.

Tedros had this week asked Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old president to serve in the role to help tackle non-communicable diseases like heart attacks, strokes, and asthma across Africa.

In announcing the appointment in Uruguay’s capital this week, Tedros had praised Zimbabwe as “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the center of its policies to provide health care to all.”

The decision, however, sparked outrage among key WHO member states — the United States in particular — and other critics of Mugabe’s rule.

“This appointment clearly contradicts the United Nations ideals of respect for human rights and human dignity,” the US State Department said.

Britain, for its part, had said naming Mugabe had been “surprising and disappointing, particularly in light of the current US and EU sanctions against him.”

“We have registered our concerns with WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus,” a Foreign Office statement read.

Canada, too, objected, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying, “It is absolutely unacceptable and inconceivable this individual would have a role as a goodwill ambassador for any organization, much less the World Health Organization.”

The Canadian Foreign Ministry later called for the appointment to be “rescinded without delay.”

Human rights activist and lawyer Doug Coltart also mocked the decision by saying on Twitter that a “man who flies to Singapore for treatment because he has destroyed Zimbabwe’s health sector is WHO’s goodwill ambassador,” referring to Mugabe.

Other critics have argued that Zimbabwe’s health care system had collapsed under Mugabe’s rule.

UN agencies often name high-profile personalities as goodwill ambassadors to draw attention and highlight their tasks in the eyes of the global community and to garner support for the cause.

Tedros, who is a former Ethiopian health minister, took charge of WHO in July this year. He is the first African to lead the UN agency.

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