GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) was poised on Sunday to sideline Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador after major Western donors and rights groups voiced outrage at the hastily-announced appointment.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus named Mugabe to the largely ceremonial post at a high-level WHO meeting on chronic diseases, attended by both men, in Uruguay on Wednesday. Tedros praised Zimbabwe as “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the center of its policies to provide health care to all”.
Tedros, who has returned to Geneva, said in a tweet on Saturday evening that he was “rethinking the approach in light of WHO values” and that a statement was forthcoming.
Several former and current WHO staff said privately they were appalled at the “poor judgment” and “miscalculation” by Tedros, elected the first African head of WHO in May.
Mugabe was head of the African Union (AU) when the bloc endorsed Tedros – a former health and foreign minister of Ethiopia – over other African candidates for the top post, without any real regional contest or debate, they said.
Mugabe, 93, is blamed in the West for destroying Zimbabwe’s economy and numerous human rights abuses during his 37 years leading the country as either president or prime minister.
Britain said Mugabe’s appointment as a goodwill ambassador for non-communicable diseases in Africa was “surprising and disappointing” and that it risked overshadowing the WHO’s global work. The United States, which has imposed sanctions on Mugabe for alleged human rights violations, said it was “disappointed.”
“He (Tedros) has to remember where his funding comes from,” said one health official who declined to be identified.
The U.S. administration of President Donald Trump, which is already questioning financial support for some programs of United Nations agencies, is WHO’s largest single donor.
The controversy came as WHO struggles to recover its reputation tarnished by its slowness in tackling the Ebola epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa from 2014-2015 under Tedros’ predecessor Margaret Chan.
The Geneva-based agency is currently grappling with crises including a massive cholera outbreak in Yemen that has infected some 800,000 people in the past year and an outbreak of plague in Madagascar that has killed nearly 100 people in two months.
Combatting chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease linked to smoking, obesity and other risk factors are part of its permanent global agenda.
Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London; Editing by Toby Chopra