(CNSNews.com) – Backing down under angry criticism, the head of the U.N.’s World Health Organization has reversed a decision to appoint Zimbabwe’s autocratic president as a “goodwill ambassador” in the fight against non-communicable diseases.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom said Sunday he had “listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns” and believed the move was in WHO’s best interests.
Tedros did not apologize or concede that President Robert Mugabe’s appointment was a mistake, but said it was important to “create unity around bringing health to all, based on WHO’s core values.”
“It is my aim to build a worldwide movement for global health,” he said. “This movement must work for everyone and include everyone.”
Rights groups that had slammed the appointment were pleased at the reversal, but some want the episode to be investigated more thoroughly.
The decision to name 93-year-old Mugabe to the post shocked health and human rights advocates around the world, given a long record of repression and rights abuses during his more than 37-year tenure.
Mugabe is targeted by U.S. and European Union sanctions over rights abuses and land grabs of formerly white-owned farms. His party has endorsed him to run again in elections due in mid-2018. He is already the world’s third-longest ruling leader, after the repressive presidents of two other African nations, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.
U.S. taxpayers account for 22 percent of the WHO’s annual budget. The Obama administration requested $112.7 million for the agency in FY 2016 and an estimated $111.2 million in FY 2017.
The Trump administration has put the U.N. “on notice” over funding and the need for reforms. Its FY 2018 budget request does not include breakdowns for specific agencies, but its request for the account from which those contributions are drawn has been reduced by 31 percent – from $1.4 billion in FY 2017 to $996 million.
Criticism mounted after Tedros, a former Ethiopian foreign and health minister who has been at the helm of WHO for less than four months, announced the decision at a meeting on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Uruguay Wednesday.
Praising Zimbabwe as “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the center of its policies,” Tedros said Mugabe would be a “goodwill ambassador on NCDs for Africa, to influence his peers in his region to prioritize NCDs.”
NCDs are diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes, which kill tens of millions of people each year. U.N. “goodwill ambassadors” are meant to champion and draw greater public attention to specific issues.
The Mugabe decision thrilled the Zimbabwean establishment, with the state-owned Harare Herald calling it a “new feather in [the] president’s cap.” (The same paper ran an op-ed on Friday arguing that Mugabe deserves the Nobel peace prize.)
But criticism was quick in coming.
More than two dozen health organizations from around the world, led by the NCD Alliance (itself a network of 2,000 organizations), said they were “shocked and deeply concerned” by the move, citing Mugabe’s “long track record of human rights violations and undermining the dignity of human beings.”
Zimbabwean human rights lawyer and activist Doug Coltart noted the irony of the appointment of a leader who regularly flies to Singapore for health treatment “because he destroyed Zimbabwe’s health sector.”
“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 Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch which, like WHO, is based in Geneva.
“The notion that the U.N. should now spin this country as a great supporter of health is, frankly, sickening,” Neuer added.
U.N. Watch on Sunday welcomed Tedros’ reversal of the decision but called for an independent inquiry into the matter, saying that “there must be more to the story.”
“WHO reversing this decision does not fix our broken health system,” tweeted Coltart, the Zimbabwean activist. “But it demonstrates the power we have when we speak out.”
Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Walter Mzembi complained about the “inordinate noise” that surrounded Mugabe’s appointment, and said WHO’s reversal showed the need for urgent “reform” of the U.N. system.