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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

WHO selects Mugabe as 'goodwill ambassador'

The chief said the Zimbabwe President could use the role "to influence his peers in his region."

Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe's appointment as a WHO goodwill ambassador was widely criticised. Themba Hadebe / AP Photo
Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe's appointment as a WHO goodwill ambassador was widely criticised. Themba Hadebe / AP Photo

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has long faced United States sanctions over his government's human rights abuses. But the World Health Organization's new chief is making the longtime African leader a "goodwill ambassador."

With the controversial politician nearby, New WHO head Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a conference in Uruguay this week on non-communicable diseases that Mr Mugabe had agreed to be a "goodwill ambassador" on the issue.

Dr Tedros, who is Ethiopian, is the first African to lead the WHO. He praised Zimbabwe for its commitment to public health.

The chief said Mugabe could use the role "to influence his peers in his region."

In his speech, Dr Tedros described Zimbabwe as "a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide health care to all.

Two dozen organisations — including the World Heart Federation, Action Against Smoking and Cancer Research U.K. — released a statement slamming the appointment, saying health officials were "shocked and deeply concerned" and citing his "long track record of human rights violations."

The groups said they had raised their concerns with Dr Tedros on the sidelines of the conference, to no avail.

Human rights activists took to social media to criticise the decision.

The southern African nation once was known as the region's prosperous breadbasket. But in 2008, the charity Physicians for Human Rights released a report documenting failures in Zimbabwe's health system, saying that Mr 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.

"The Mugabe regime has used any means at its disposal, including politicising the health sector, to maintain its hold on power."

The report said Mugabe's policies led directly to "the shuttering of hospitals and clinics, the closing of its medical school and the beatings of health workers."

The U.S. in 2003 imposed targeted sanctions, a travel ban and an asset freeze against Mr Mugabe and close associates, citing his government's rights abuses and evidence of electoral fraud.