The 93-year-old Zimbabwean leader was given the position, which is bestowed on personalities who highlight “important health issues,” at a WHO conference on noncommunicable diseases (NCD) in Montevideo, Uruguay.
WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom told the conference that he was honored to have Mugabe, who is regarded as one of the most controversial political leaders of the 21st century, serve as an ambassador.
Dr Tedros also said that Mugabe can “influence his peers” and praised Zimbabwe as a “country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the center of its policies”.
But not everyone is in agreement. International watchdog, UN Watch, described the United Nations health agency’s announcement as “sickening”.
“The government of Robert Mugabe has brutalized human rights activists, crushed democracy dissidents, and turned the breadbasket of Africa - and its health system - into a basket-case,” said UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer.
“The notion that the UN should now spin this country as a great supporter of health is, frankly, sickening,” Neuer added.
Knighted by the British monarchy in 1994, Mugabe had the honor revoked in 2008 due to the violent nature of Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF party regime.
Mugabe has also been slammed for muzzling the press by threatening journalists reporting on protests with imprisonment.
Some 24 health organisations from around the world, including the World Heart Alliance, Cancer Research UK, and the Healthy Latin America Coalition, issued a statement Friday, saying they were “shocked and deeply concerned” due to Mugabe’s “long track record of human rights violations”.
“Given these systematic abuses and his approach to NCDs and tobacco control in the past, NCD civil society present in Montevideo believe that President Mugabe’s appointment as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for NCDs cannot be justified,” the statement read.