WHO Thought Mugabe Was a Good Idea?

By Katherine Maningas

We now live in a world where not only can Trump become the President of the United States, but also where Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe/human rights violator, can be considered to be a goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organization.

On October 18th, WHO’s Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that he was “honoured to announce” that Robert Mugabe had agreed to serve as a goodwill ambassador on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Africa, and hoped that Mugabe would “influence his peers in his region to prioritize NCDs.” Tedros claimed that Mugabe was chosen due to Zimbabwe prioritizing universal health coverage and health promotion in domestic policy.

Immediately following the announcement, dozens of organizations and global leaders condemned the appointment citing Mugabe’s human rights violations and other corruptive practices. The British Government released a statement remarking that the appointment “risks overshadowing the work undertaken globally by the WHO on non-communicable diseases.” Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, tweeted “Mugabe corruption decimates Zimbabwe health care (he travels abroad for care) but WHO’s Tedros names him ambassador.” Furthermore, a group of thirty global health organizations signed a joint statement saying that they were “shocked and deeply concerned...given Mugabe’s long track record of human rights violations and undermining the dignity of human beings.”

The 93-year-old president was lead Zimbabwe’s journey for independence and took power immediately following its separation from Britain in 1980. Mugabe continues to pursue a socialist agenda influenced by his time in the revolution, but he has been deeply criticized for not understanding modern economics. He attempted to divide property owned by the white minority to black Zimbabweans during the revolution rather than expanding the nation’s economy, thus forcing his country into decades of debt, poverty, and suffering.

Since the beginning of his rule, he has seized all political power and in the two instances where his authority was challenged, the 2000 election and 2008 election, he unleashed his militia onto those that opposed him, committing thousands of acts of rape, torture and murder. He also made sure not to ratify the International Criminal Court statute, which means that the court cannot summon him unless endorsed by the Security Council. Thus, making it that much harder to charge him with these crimes. These are certainly not the only instances of human rights violations committed under Mugabe’s rule, yet it goes without saying that acts that are this wide spread should not deem Mugabe to be even remotely considered for a position such as goodwill ambassador.

No one is exactly sure why Tedros decided to appoint Mugabe despite his heinous record; there is speculation that it was Tedros’ way of paying back those who supported him during the election. Although the goodwill ambassador position is more symbolic than it is functional, it still has a fair amount of consequences. This incident has made global leaders anxious about Tedros’ capability and judgement as a leader, and it could possibly overshadow Tedros’ hopes of recrediting WHO after their failed response during the Ebola crisis in 2014 and over response to the H1N1 epidemic in 2008. If he does not give a satisfying justification for his choice then he is very likely to face pushback, despite his well-meaning agenda for WHO.  

But there are consequences beyond Tedros and the WHO.

Symbolism and language are powerful. They shape our way of thinking and therefore shape our decisions and actions. By having a global organization endorse a man known for committing crimes against humanity, even for a second, it creates the perception that the international system is not willing to wholeheartedly defend or respect human rights. On the flip side, this event clearly demonstrated that people are willing to denounce those who violate human rights, and thankfully, Tedros rescinded his decision a few days later. However, it should be noted that this was a convenient act of injustice to call out because everyone knows about Mugabe’s record. It is important that more countries and global organizations take this same course of action in instances that are not as convenient or easy. There needs to be a more unified front of the entire global system condemning violations of human rights, because this event proved that unity can ignite change.