UN body appoints Zimbabwean despot to help tackle non-communicable diseases, despite dire health crisis under his rule.
The UK government has criticised the World Health Organization’s decision to appoint Robert Mugabe as a “goodwill ambassador”, calling the move “surprising and disappointing”.
A Downing Street spokesman said British diplomats had raised serious concerns with the WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, over the decision to offer the high-profile role to the Zimbabwean president.
The UN body asked the 93-year-old, who has been in power since 1980, to help tackle non-communicable diseases such as heart attacks, strokes and asthma across Africa.
However, the move has been condemned by human rights groups and international bodies, which say Zimbabwe’s healthcare system has collapsed under Mugabe’s authoritarian regime. Most hospitals lack essential medicines and supplies, and nurses and doctors regularly go unpaid.
A UK government spokesman said the WHO decision was at odds with US and EU sanctions against Mugabe. “Although Mugabe will not have an executive role, his appointment risks overshadowing the work undertaken globally by the WHO on non-communicable diseases,” he said.
Tedros said he was “honoured” to announce that Mugabe had agreed to serve as a goodwill ambassador on non-communicable diseases for Africa. He hailed Zimbabwe as “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide healthcare to all”.
The choice of Mugabe for the role has also angered opposition parties in Zimbabwe and human rights campaigners who accuse the leader of violent repression, election rigging and presiding over the country’s economic ruin.
Iain Levine, a programme director at Human Rights Watch, tweeted:
The main opposition party in Zimbabwe, MDC, described the appointment as “laughable”. “The Zimbabwe health delivery system is in a shambolic state. It is an insult,” the spokesman Obert Gutu 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.”
Mugabe is in increasingly fragile health and makes regular trips abroad for medical treatment.
Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald newspaper reported the appointment under the headline “New feather in President’s cap”. It said Mugabe had told the WHO conference in Montevideo on Wednesday that Zimbabwe had developed a national policy on non-communicable diseases, and that he had called for more funds for developing nations.
According to the WHO, non-communicable diseases are by far the world’s leading cause of death, killing more than 36 million people a year.
UN agencies such as the WHO, UNHCR and Unesco all appoint goodwill ambassadors to highlight specific causes and often to draw publicity.
Unicef ambassadors include the singer Katy Perry and the tennis player Serena Williams.
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