The decision to make Zimbabwe’s controversial president Robert Mugabe a goodwill ambassador for the UN’s World Health Organisation is “surprising and disappointing”, Downing Street has said.
Mugabe, who is accused of human rights abuses and ruining his country’s economy in his 37 years in power, was announced as the WHO’s ambassador for non-communicable diseases on Friday.
It triggered outrage from human rights advocates and Mugabe’s opponents in Zimbabwe, in part because of how the country’s healthcare system has collapsed under his leadership.
Many hospitals have run out of supplies and doctors and nurses routinely go unpaid.
“The Zimbabwe health delivery system is in a shambolic state. It is an insult,” a spokesman for the main opposition party said.
“Mugabe trashed our health delivery system. He and his family go outside of the country for treatment in Singapore after he allowed our public hospitals to collapse.”
A spokesperson for Number 10 said Mugabe’s appointment was “surprising and disappointing, particularly in light of the current US and EU sanctions against him”.
They added: “Although Mugabe will not have an executive role, his appointment risks overshadowing the work undertaken globally by the WHO on Non-Communicable Diseases.”
MP Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, said Mugabe’s “version of goodwill is corruption, murder, and dictatorship”.
He told Sky News: “He has caused famine in one of the most productive lands in the world. It’s hard to see how this aligns with the values the WHO purports to hold.
“There are many other excellent people across the continent of Africa who have done so much for others it is wrong that one of history’s greatest thieves should be so honoured.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said Mugabe “has intensified repression against thousands of people who peacefully protest human rights violations and the deteriorating economic situation”.
It adds police in Zimbabwe “use excessive force to crush dissent” and “widespread impunity for abuses by the police and state security agents remains”.
Iain Levine, deputy executive director for programmes at HRW, tweeted Mugabe’s “appalling” human rights record meant his appointment “embarrasses” the WHO and its director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom.
Adhanom, a former Ethiopian foreign minister, said Zimbabwe was “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide health care to all”.
A WHO spokesman said the appointment was part of Adhanom’s “determination to build a global movement to promote high-level political leadership for health”.
Mugabe, 93, has made regular trips abroad for treatment this year.
Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based group UN Watch, criticised the choice by the WHO, a UN agency. “The government of RobertMugabe has brutalised human rights activists, crushed democracy dissidents, and turned the breadbasket of Africa — and its health system — into a basket-case.
“The notion that the UN should now spin this country as a great supporter of health is, frankly, sickening,”