WHO names Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe goodwill ambassador

By Sam Howard  |  Oct. 21, 2017 at 8:57 AM
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Oct. 21 (UPI) -- The World Health Organization this week named Zimbabwe's controversial longtime President Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador -- provoking criticism from those who say the move is embarrassing and concerning.

Mugabe has been a major political force in Zimbabwe since 1980, serving as president and prime minister after winning a number of elections many considered dubious. The U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control names Mugabe on its sanction list and the European Union decided earlier this year to renew sanctions against the leader.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the United Nation's WHO arm, said Wednesday at a conference Uruguay that Mugabe would help push for the treatment of noncommunicable diseases, or NCDs, in Africa.

Tom Frieden, the president of Resolve to Save Lives, a global health group, criticized the decision in an emailed statement to STAT News.

"Although leadership by heads of state to stop NCDs can be very helpful ... Mugabe is the wrong head of state," Frieden said. "He has undermined civil society, led to economic collapse, and advocated for the tobacco industry; this is the opposite of what is needed from political leadership in public health."

A coalition of 28 international health organizations also took Mugabe to task over his tobacco record in a release Friday. They said they spoke with Tedros' administration about their concerns.

Iain Levine, deputy executive director at Human Rights Watch, was similarly disheartened.

"Given Mugabe's appalling human rights record, calling him a Goodwill Ambassador for anything embarrasses [the WHO and Tedros]," Levine wrote on Twitter.

The 28 health groups said they "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."

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