Last week, former Ethiopian minister of health and current World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom appointed longtime president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe to a goodwill ambassador position at WHO.
Less than seven days later, Adhanom rescinded this appointment after critics in the international community voiced opposition to Mugabe’s poor record of respecting human rights in the country he has presided over since 1980.
WHO has endorsed a Head of State who arbitrarily arrests and intimidates journalists. Robert Mugabe opposes press freedom. Does WHO?— richard horton (@richardhorton1) October 21, 2017
Mugabe was chosen by Adhanom to focus on preventing noncommunicable diseases. His role would have largely consisted of raising awareness in partnership with WHO, in a post lasting two years.
But, immediately after the initial announcement of Mugabe’s appointment, outcry from human rights activists and even governments swiftly followed. Those opposed to Adhanom’s decision pointed to a long list of human rights abuses by Mugabe, as well as disastrous health policies carried out by the Zimbabwean president.
Though human rights violations seem egregious enough to warrant the raising of eyebrows, Mugabe’s appointment seemed even more puzzling in light of the widely reported collapse of the Zimbabwean health care system that occurred during his time as president.
The Guardian reported in 2016 that a series of strikes, import bans, and economic crises wracked the health system so badly that only 30% of Zimbabwean hospitals were running at full capacity, and nearly two-thirds of residents did not seek treatment for ailments on account of exorbitant costs.
Considering that noncommunicable diseases are the leading cause of death around the globe, the controversy around Mugabe’s appointment seemed to detract from the important advocacy his role would have entailed.
“The government of Robert Mugabe has brutalised human rights activists, crushed democracy dissidents, and turned the breadbasket of Africa and its health system into a basket-case,” said Hillel Neuer, the director of the watchdog organization UN Watch. “The notion that the UN should now spin this country as a great supporter of health is, frankly, sickening.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that Zimbabwe has engaged in large scale, violent repressions of peaceful protests in response to declining economic conditions across the country. Impunity for police, and the undermining of judicial independence have allowed Mugabe to silence dissent by government opponents, HRW claims.
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Following the announcement of Mugabe’s rescindment, some took to Twitter to express their pleasure at a decision that they believe will allow the battle for global health to continue without a distracting controversy.
WHO has rescinded its appointment of Robert Mugabe as Goodwill Ambassador. The right decision. Thank you Dr Tedros. Strong leadership.— richard horton (@richardhorton1) October 22, 2017
Happy to hear the WHO walked back the President Mugabe announcement. That’s a bad man who doesn’t deserve anything— A Saleh (@Dude_Br0) October 23, 2017
Mugabe 's term as WHO ambassador pic.twitter.com/H04IQZj0W8— Ryan Cummings (@Pol_Sec_Analyst) October 23, 2017