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Less than seven days later, Adhanom rescinded this appointment after critics in the international community voiced opposition to Mugabe’s poor record of respecting human rights in the country he has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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Since 2003, both the US and EU have enforced sanctions against Zimbabwe in response to the president’s “undermining of democratic institutions” and “serious violations of human rights.”

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.

Read More: Zimbabwe Nurse Wins International Award For Her Tuberculosis Research

Global Citizen campaigns on the United Nations’ Global Goals for Sustainable Development, including goal number three: good health and well-being. You can take action on this issue here.

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.


Defeat Poverty

Why Zimbabwe's President Was Relieved of His WHO Appointment After Less Than 1 Week

By Andrew McMaster