GENEVA: 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 Mugabe on hand, WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus announced the appointment at a conference in Uruguay this week on non-communicable diseases. Dozens of health groups have reacted with shock.
Tedros, an Ethiopian who became WHO's first African director-general this year, said Mugabe could use the role "to influence his peers in his region" on the issue. A WHO spokeswoman confirmed the comments to The Associated Press on Friday.
In his speech, 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 organizations — 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 Tedros on the sidelines of the conference, to no avail. Zimbabwe's government has not commented.
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 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 healthcare," the group concluded. 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 93-year-old Mugabe, the world's oldest head of state, also has come under criticism at home for his frequent overseas travels that have cost impoverished Zimbabwe millions of dollars.
The U.S. in 2003 imposed targeted sanctions, a travel ban and an asset freeze against Mugabe and close associates, citing his government's rights abuses and evidence of electoral fraud.
U.N. agencies typically choose celebrities as ambassadors to draw attention to issues of concern, but they hold little actual power.