By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The appointment of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been denounced by human rights groups.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the appointment at a high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Uruguay on Wednesday.
The meeting was attended by Mugabe, 93. He is blamed in the West for destroying his country's economy and numerous human rights abuses during his 37 years leading the country as either president or prime minister.
In a speech, Tedros praised Zimbabwe as "a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide health care to all".
The former Ethiopian health and foreign minister, who was elected last May as WHO's first African director-general, added: "Today I am also honoured to announce that President Mugabe has agreed to serve as a goodwill ambassador on NCDs for Africa to influence his peers in his region to prioritize NCDs."
Iain Levine, deputy executive director for programmes at Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter: “Given Mugabe’s appalling human rights record, calling him a goodwill ambassador for anything embarrasses WHO and Dr Tedros.”
WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said the WHO chief was seeking broad support for the agency's work.
"Tedros has frequently talked of his determination to build a global movement to promote high-level political leadership for health," he said by e-mail.
Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based group UN Watch, issued a statement late on Friday criticising the choice by WHO, a United Nations agency.
"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 notion that the U.N. should now spin this country as a great supporter of health is, frankly, sickening," Neuer said.
He noted that Mugabe himself had travelled to Singapore for medical treatment three times this year rather than in his homeland.
Western diplomats also voiced surprise at the appointment and said they were unaware of the "decision-making structure" behind it.
(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Ben Hirschler in London; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)