Provoking global head-scratching and more than a little outrage, Robert Mugabe, the longtime president of Zimbabwe — who faces international sanctions for human rights abuses including violent crackdowns on political dissent — has been appointed as a “goodwill ambassador” for the World Health Organization.
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?
WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian who became the first African to hold the post this year, made the announcement at a Uruguay conference on noncommunicable diseases, saying Mugabe would be an advocate for fighting diseases such as cancer and diabetes in Africa.
Ghebreyesus tweeted Saturday that he was reconsidering the appointment “in light of WHO values” and said a statement was forthcoming.
In making the announcement earlier this week, he 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 president 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.”
Like Neuer, many 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 the Zimbabwean president 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.
The Zimbabwe Herald called the nonagenarian’s recent appointment a “new feather in President’s cap” and said he would “spearhead the fight against noncommunicable diseases.”
Goodwill ambassadors hold little power but usually travel the world, using their celebrity to champion their organizations’ key issues, in this case, noncommunicable diseases such as cancer and diabetes. Both Ricky Martin and Shakira have been goodwill ambassadors for UNICEF, for example. And Mugabe will replace former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Some goodwill ambassadors have sparked controversy before — and been fired. Wonder Woman was fired as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, for example, after a large outcry that a white woman in skimpy clothing who solves most of her problems with violence wasn’t a good role model for girls.