The new head of the World Health Organization has rescinded an invitation to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to serve as a goodwill ambassador for the global health agency, saying he has heard the criticism the appointment generated.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s decision to appoint the Zimbabwean strongman to serve as a goodwill ambassador has been censured by heads of state, human rights organizations, and the global health community since it came to public attention late last week.
“I have listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns, and heard the different issues that they have raised. I have also consulted with the Government of Zimbabwe and we have concluded that this decision is in the best interests of the World Health Organization,” Tedros, as he is known, said in a statement issued from Geneva on Sunday.
“I thank everyone who has voiced their concerns and shared their thoughts. I depend on constructive debate to help and inform the work I have been elected to do.”
The statement did not explain what Tedros hoped to gain by appointing Mugabe to the ceremonial role in the first place, though it talked of the need to work with all governments to meet the WHO’s goal of health care for all.
Some global health leaders moved quickly to show support, commending the reversal. “Great leaders take time to listen to constructive debate. Dr. Tedros deserves all of our support to ensure he and WHO build a global health movement that is inclusive and works to improve health for everyone based on universal values of fairness and equity,” said Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust.
But is unlikely Sunday’s announcement will silence the questions the Mugabe appointment raised about the new director-general’s leadership.
David Fidler, a professor of global health law at Indiana University, assessed the possible fall out of the event on Saturday, when it became clear the WHO director-general might be about to walk back the controversial appointment. Tedros had announced on Twitter on Saturday that he was rethinking the appointment.
If “Tedros retracts the decision, he loses whatever political support in Africa he hoped to gain and he destroys whatever statement of independence as the first African [WHO leader] he must have been trying to make,” Fidler told STAT by email.
“To his global health critics, he admits he made a terrible, terrible decision on one of the most important issues facing WHO, suggesting his leadership is very suspect.”
Tedros announced the appointment — which caught even WHO staff off-guard — on Wednesday in a speech at a global conference on noncommunicable diseases in Montevideo, Uruguay. But news of the appointment was slow to emerge. By Friday evening, though, Twitter was alight with indignation and disbelief.
“Mugabe corruption decimates Zimbabwe health care (he travels abroad for care) but @WHO’s Tedros names him ambassador,” wrote Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust tweeted, “Robert Mugabe fails to represent the values WHO should stand for and those that Dr. Tedros has stood for …”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he thought the news “was a bad April Fool’s joke.”
“It is absolutely unacceptable, absolutely unconceivable that this individual would have a role as a goodwill ambassador,” Trudeau said Saturday.
Goodwill ambassadors, according to the WHO’s website, “are well-known personalities” who work with the U.N. agency to “raise awareness of important health problems and solutions.” The ambassadors include former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, also for noncommunicable diseases.
Mugabe, who is 93 and reportedly in frail health, has led Zimbabwe since its independence from Britain in 1980. His government has repressed protesters and political opponents, has been accused of rigging elections, and has been implicated in widespread human-rights violations.
Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe has struggled economically and has been seen as a pariah on the international stage. The country is also a major tobacco producer and exporter — something that critics cited as further evidence that Mugabe was a poor choice to advocate for solutions to conditions such as cancer and heart disease.