'It cannot be justified' - WHO criticised after Mugabe appointed as goodwill ambassador

Health Minister Simon Harris described the decision as "offensive" and "bizarre"

'It cannot be justified' - WHO criticised after Mugabe appointed as goodwill ambassador

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Picture by: Xinhua/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Updated 12.15pm

The UN's World Health Organisation (WHO) has been heavily criticised after naming Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador.

Health Minister Simon Harris has described the appointment as "offensive" and "bizarre".

The controversial decision was announced by the WHO's director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a conference in Uruguay.

The conference saw global leaders pledging to back a UN-backed plan to take "bold action" to reduce suffering from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs, which include the likes of heart attacks and strokes).

However, activists have reacted with shock over the appointment of Mugabe (93) as a goodwill ambassador to help tackle NCDs in Africa.

BBC reports that Dr Tedros praised Zimbabwe for its commitment to public health.

However, Mugabe's regime has been accused of & internationally sanctioned for a wide variety of human rights abuses & violations.

The Physicians for Human Rights group has reported that the health system in the country has 'utterly collapsed'.

On their website, the group argues: "[Mugabe's] government’s policies lead directly to the shuttering of hospitals and clinics, the closing of its medical school, and the beatings of health workers."

Lotte Leicht, the EU Director of Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter that the WHO appointment "sounds like some kind of sick joke, but it's for real."

A number of international civil society groups focused on NCDs - including the World Heart Federation and the NCD Alliance - issued a joint statement condemning the move.

The statement said: "Members of the NCD civil society movement present at the conference are shocked and deeply concerned to hear of this appointment, given President Mugabe’s long track record of human rights violations and undermining the dignity of human beings.

"Given these systematic abuses and his approach to NCDs and tobacco control in the past, NCD civil society present in Montevideo believe that President Mugabe’s appointment as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for NCDs cannot be justified."

The groups say they raised their concerns with Dr Tedros during a meeting on the side-lines of the conference.

A spokesperson for Zimbabwe's main opposition party Democratic Change, meanwhile, criticised the decision as 'laughable', arguing: "The Zimbabwe health delivery system is in a shambolic state. It is an insult.

"Mugabe trashed our health delivery system. He and his family go outside of the country for treatment in Singapore after he allowed our public hospitals to collapse."

In remarks cited by the state-run Zimbabwe Herald, Mr Mugabe claimed his country has introduced several strategies to deal with NCDs.