Robert Mugabe is appointed a WHO goodwill ambassador, stunning critics

By Helen Branswell

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe looks on as he attends the 2nd Session of the South Africa-Zimbabwe binational Commission (BNC) on October 3, 2017 at Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House in Pretoria. / AFP PHOTO / Phill Magakoe (Photo credit should read PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP/Getty Images)

The new head of the World Health Organization has named Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe a goodwill ambassador for the agency, a move that has startled public health experts.


The WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, made the controversial announcement on Wednesday in a speech at a global conference on noncommunicable diseases in Montevideo, Uruguay. Tedros, as he is known, described himself as “honored” that Mugabe — whose government has repressed protesters and has been implicated in widespread human rights violations — had agreed to serve as a goodwill ambassador on noncommunicable diseases for Africa. Those diseases include conditions like heart disease and cancer.

News of the appointment has been slow to trickle out but has been met with disbelief by public health experts.

David Fidler, a professor of international health law at Indiana University, called the appointment “stunning.”

“Mugabe’s record in Zimbabwe involves so many things antithetical to the ethos of the global health community that this move by DG Tedros is unsettling,” Fidler told STAT in an email.

“The appointment is so surreal that finding a rationale seems like a fool’s errand. But there is a message, and it is a harsh one: DG Tedros is challenging conventional global health approaches and attitudes about Africa.”

A spokesman for the WHO, asked for comment, provided a link to Tedros’s speech, but said “no further details are available at this time.”

Goodwill ambassadors, according to the WHO, “are well-known personalities who agree to contribute to WHO’s efforts to raise awareness of important health problems and solutions.” Among other ambassadors is former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is also an ambassador for noncommunicable diseases.

Mugabe, who is 93 and reportedly in frail health, has led Zimbabwe since its independence from Britain in 1980, first as prime minister and for the past three decades as president. International observers have criticized a series of elections that have maintained him in power.

Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe has struggled economically and has been seen as a pariah on the international stage.

Zimbabwe’s foreign minister celebrated Tedros’s announcement.

“This is a major health diplomacy coup for Zimbabwe and should be celebrated given the adverse impact of NCDs on the well-being of Zimbabweans particularly cancers, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and mental health diseases,” Foreign Minister Walter Mzembi told the country’s Daily News.

A number of organizations that attended the Montevideo conference said in a statement after the announcement that they could not recognize Mugabe as a WHO goodwill ambassador.

Among the organizations were the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance, the World Heart Federation, the Cancer Council of Australia, and the nonprofit group Vital Strategies.

While noting that Mugabe was the only African head of state to attend the Montevideo conference, the groups said they “are shocked and deeply concerned to hear of this appointment, given President Mugabe’s long track record of human rights violations and undermining the dignity of human beings.”

“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 said the signatories raised their concerns with Tedros, the first African to head the WHO, during a meeting at the conference.

“While we support WHO and Dr Tedros in their ambition to drive the NCD agenda forward, we are unable to recognize President Mugabe as a champion for NCDs.”



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