Issue: November 2017
October 23, 2017
3 min read

WHO’s Tedros rescinds appointment of Mugabe as ‘goodwill ambassador’

Issue: November 2017
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Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Tedros Adhanom
Photo of Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe

Amid widespread concern, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, MSc, rescinded his appointment of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe as a “goodwill ambassador” for the world health agency.

News of the controversial appointment of Mugabe as WHO ambassador for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) in Africa was met with condemnation from all corners of the global health community. Reacting to criticism, Tedros announced that he was “rethinking” his decision “in light of WHO values.” The former Ethiopian minister of foreign affairs — who was elected in May as the first African to lead WHO — eventually released a statement saying that he was retracting the appointment.

“I have listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns, and heard the different issues that they have raised,” Tedros said in a statement. “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.”

Former CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH, told Infectious Disease News that it was “appropriate” that Tedros rescinded the appointment. Frieden is now the president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, a global health program he launched recently to reduce global deaths from heart attack and stroke.

Thomas Frieden, MD
Thomas R. Frieden

“Africa is expected to have the world’s largest increase in NCD deaths over the coming decade,” Frieden said. “Countries in Africa are experiencing increases in tobacco use, the world’s leading killer — hypertension — is rarely treated in most countries of Africa, and few countries have taken effective action to reduce sodium consumption. Strong and respected political leadership is necessary to curb the rise in these preventable deaths.”

Mugabe, aged 93 years, has led Zimbabwe for close to 40 years. Under his rule, the country has been subject to international sanctions tied to Mugabe’s history of human rights violations. The nongovernmental human rights group UN Watch calls Mugabe a dictator and said his policies have “devastated Zimbabwe’s once-prosperous economy, leaving a crumbling health system while Mugabe obtains his own medical assistance outside the country.”

“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,” the group said after the initial appointment. “The notion that the U.N. should now spin this country as a great supporter of health is, frankly, sickening.”

Organizations within the United Nations, including WHO, have long designated prominent people as ambassadors for certain causes. Chinese soprano singer and actress Peng Liyuan is a WHO ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, and the actors Anne Hathaway, Nicole Kidman and Emma Watson are U.N. women’s ambassadors. Ex-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is a WHO global ambassador for noncommunicable diseases, akin to the position to which Mugabe was named.

Mugabe was in attendance when Tedros made the appointment last week at a conference in Uruguay on NCDs. During an address, Tedros said he was “honored” to announce that Mugabe had accepted the post.

Criticism of the appointment was widespread. A group called The NCD Alliance met with Tedros during the conference to express its concerns and said it was “shocked and deeply concerned” by the decision. Later, the group said it appreciated Tedros rescinding the appointment.

Jeremy Farrar
Jeremy Farrar
Carlos del Rio

Jeremy Farrar, MD, PhD, director of the Wellcome Trust, called the appointment “deeply disappointing and wrong” and said Mugabe “fails to represent the values WHO should stand for.” Carlos del Rio, MD, professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, said he was worried about how the appointment was made.

“The decision of Dr. Tedros to rescind the appointment of Robert Mugabe as WHO goodwill ambassador is a reflection of his ability to listen and change course,” del Rio told Infectious Disease News. “What concerns me is that this happened in the first place and that no one in his staff or cabinet questioned [it]. Did he not ask anyone? Did he ask and those around him thought it was a good idea? The lesson here is how does he prevent a faux pas like this from happening again?” – by Gerard Gallagher

Disclosures: Del Rio, Farrar, Frieden and Tedros report no relevant financial disclosures.