WHO revokes appointment of Mugabe as ‘goodwill ambassador’ amid allegations of human rights abuses
JOHANNESBURG – The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) revoked on Sunday his appointment of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe as a “goodwill ambassador” after the choice drew widespread outrage and criticism.
Zimbabwe’s government said it respected the turnabout and that the UN health agency “benefited tremendously” from the attention.
Last week in Uruguay, WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus told a conference on non-communicable diseases that Mugabe, who was present, had agreed to be a “goodwill ambassador” on the issue.
After the outcry by international leaders and health experts, Tedros said in a statement that he had reflected and decided to change his mind, calling it in the best interests of the UN health agency.
Tedros said he had consulted with the Zimbabwe government about his decision.
The 93-year-old Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state, has long been criticized at home for going overseas for medical treatment as Zimbabwe’s once-prosperous economy falls apart and the country’s health care system deteriorates. Mugabe also faces sanctions from the United States over his government’s alleged human rights abuses.
The US had said the appointment of Mugabe by WHO’s first African leader “clearly contradicts the United Nations (UN) ideals of respect for human rights and human dignity.”
Two dozen organizations – including the World Heart Federation and Cancer Research U.K. – released a statement slamming the appointment, saying health officials were “shocked and deeply concerned.” The groups said they had raised their concerns with Tedros on the sidelines of the Uruguay conference, to no avail.
Zimbabwe’s government said it respected Tedros’ decision to withdraw Mugabe’s appointment.
Foreign Affairs Minister Walter Mzembi told state broadcaster ZBC that the UN health agency “benefited tremendously” from the original decision to name Mugabe to the post because of the global attention that resulted.
“On a name-recognition scale this name beats them all, but it is our business to protect its brand equity from unnecessary besmirching,” Mzembi said. “So on the balance, it is wiser to let go.”
The heads of UN agencies and the UN secretary-general typically choose superstars and other prominent people as ambassadors to draw attention to global issues of concern, such as Hollywood celebrity Angelina Jolie for refugees and global figure Malala Yousafzai for education. The choices are not subject to approval.
The ambassadors hold little actual power. They also can be fired. The comic book heroine Wonder Woman was removed from her honorary UN ambassador job in December following protests that a white, skimpily dressed American prone to violence was not the best role model for girls.
Zimbabwe once was known as the region’s prosperous breadbasket. But in 2008, the charity Physicians for Human Rights released a report documenting failures in the southern African nation’s health system, saying Mugabe’s policies had led to a man-made crisis.
“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, adding that 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, who has led Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, has been criticized at home for his frequent overseas travels for medical treatment that have cost impoverished Zimbabwe millions of dollars. His repeated visits to Singapore have heightened concerns over his health, even as he pursues re-election next year.
In 2003, the US imposed targeted sanctions, a travel ban and an asset freeze against Mugabe and close associates, citing his government’s rights abuses and evidence of electoral fraud. /kga
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