After withering criticism for naming Zimbabwe’s leader, Robert Mugabe, as a “goodwill ambassador,” the World Health Organization announced on Sunday that it had rescinded the appointment.
“I have listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns and heard the different issues that they have raised,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director general, said in a statement. “I have also consulted with the government of Zimbabwe and we have concluded that this decision is in the best interests of the World Health Organization.”
Just five days earlier, Ghebreyesus had said he was “honored” to appoint Mugabe as ambassador. He also claimed the Zimbabwean leader — whose decades-long rule has been characterized by authoritarianism and corruption — would focus on the issue of noncommunicable diseases in Africa. Speaking at a conference in Uruguay, Ghebreyesus expressed hope that Mugabe would “influence his peers in his region to prioritize [non-communicable diseases],” including heart attacks, cancer and diabetes.
The global condemnation of this choice was swift and staggering. The State Department said Mugabe’s appointment “clearly contradicts the United Nations’ ideals of respect for human rights and human dignity.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau compared the choice to “a bad April Fool’s joke.” Ireland’s health minister, Simon Harris, called the nomination “offensive” and “bizarre.” And Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, said WHO was “endorsing a repressive dictator.”
More than two dozen health organizations, including the World Heart Federation and NCD Alliance, said in a joint statement that they were “shocked” by the appointment.
“While we recognize that President Mugabe was the only African Head of State to accept the invitation to attend the WHO Global Conference and has made commitments to prioritize NCDs in his country, nevertheless … [we] are 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 statement read.
Mugabe, 93, did expand health care in Zimbabwe in the first two decades of his rule, but the health system has suffered enormously since 2000, when the Zimbabwean economy collapsed.
“Staff often go without pay, medicines are in short supply, and Mugabe, who has outlived the average life expectancy in his country by three decades, travels abroad for medical treatment,” the BBC reported.
In July, Mugabe flew to Singapore for the third time this year for medical treatment. Singapore “is literally his home now,” said an opposition party spokesman at the time, per The Guardian.
Reacting to the change, Mugabe’s government said Monday that it was the WHO and the global community that would lose most from the decision.
“The inordinate noise around the designation of President [Mugabe] … does not assist the cause in the first place. If anything, it is WHO that has benefited tremendously from its decision in nominating President Mugabe,” said Foreign Minister Walter Mzembi, according to South Africa’s Independent Online.
Other Zimbabweans expressed delight at the news. Opposition leader Tendai Biti said he was “relieved” that the appointment had been revoked, reported Independent Online.
“What was the WHO doing appointing a tinpot dictator like Mugabe in the first place? There is no water at the Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare today, and that is our main hospital, there are no drugs for patients. We have had 37 horrible years with Mugabe in power,” Biti said.