GENEVA — After widespread shock and condemnation, the head of the World Health Organization said Saturday he is "rethinking" his appointment of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe as a "goodwill ambassador."
In a new tweet, WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus said that "I'm listening. I hear your concerns. Rethinking the approach in light of WHO values. I will issue a statement as soon as possible."
The 93-year-old Mugabe, the world's oldest head of state, has long been criticized at home for going overseas for medical treatment as Zimbabwe's once-prosperous economy falls apart. Mugabe also faces U.S. sanctions over his government's human rights abuses.
The United States called the appointment of Mugabe by WHO's first African leader "disappointing."
"This appointment clearly contradicts the United Nations ideals of respect for human rights and human dignity," the State Department said.
Health and human rights leaders chimed in. "The decision to appoint Robert Mugabe as a WHO goodwill ambassador is deeply disappointing and wrong," said Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, a major British charitable foundation. "Robert Mugabe fails in every way to represent the values WHO should stand for."
Ireland's health minister, Simon Harris, called the appointment "offensive, bizarre." ''Mugabe corruption decimates Zimbabwe health care," tweeted the head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth.
With Mugabe on hand, Tedros announced the appointment at a conference in Uruguay this week on non-communicable diseases.
Tedros, a former Ethiopian official who became WHO's first African director-general this year, said Mugabe could use the role "to influence his peers in his region" on the issue. He described Zimbabwe as "a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the center of its policies." A WHO spokeswoman confirmed the comments to The Associated Press.
Two dozen organizations — including the World Heart Federation and Cancer Research U.K. — released a statement slamming the appointment, saying health officials were "shocked and deeply concerned" and citing his "long track record of human rights violations."
The groups said they had raised their concerns with Tedros on the sidelines of the conference, to no avail.
The heads of U.N. agencies and the U.S. secretary-general typically choose celebrities and other prominent people as ambassadors to draw attention to global issues of concern, such as refugees (Angelina Jolie) and education (Malala Yousafzai). The choices are not subject to approval.
The ambassadors hold little actual power. They also can be fired. The comic book heroine Wonder Woman was removed from her honorary U.N. ambassador job in December following protests that a white, skimpily dressed American prone to violence wasn't the best role model for girls.
Zimbabwe's government has not commented on Mugabe's appointment, but a state-run Zimbabwe Herald newspaper headline called it a "new feather in president's cap."
The southern African nation once was known as the region's prosperous breadbasket. But in 2008, the charity Physicians for Human Rights released a report documenting failures in Zimbabwe's health system, saying Mugabe's policies had led to a man-made crisis.
"The government of Robert Mugabe presided over the dramatic reversal of its population's access to food, clean water, basic sanitation and health care," the group concluded. Mugabe's policies led directly to "the shuttering of hospitals and clinics, the closing of its medical school and the beatings of health workers."
The 93-year-old Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, has come under criticism at home for his frequent overseas travels that have cost impoverished Zimbabwe millions of dollars. His repeated visits to Singapore have heightened concerns over his health, even as he pursues re-election next year.
The U.S. in 2003 imposed targeted sanctions, a travel ban and an asset freeze against Mugabe and close associates, citing his government's rights abuses and evidence of electoral fraud.