The role of good-will ambassador is largely symbolic, but rights groups were scathing about the symbolism of giving it to a man whose leadership has led to the collapse of its health service and major rights abuses in Zimbabwe.
Iain Levine, the program director at Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter, “Given Mugabe’s appalling human rights record, calling him a goodwill ambassador for anything embarrasses WHO and Doctor Tedros.”
The NCD Alliance, which works with the W.H.O. and other global groups to battle noncommunicable diseases, released a statement signed by 27 other health organizations — including the World Heart Federation — expressing “shock” at the appointment.
“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,” the statement said.
There was no immediate reaction from Mr. Mugabe or his government.
A spokesman for the W.H.O., Christian Lindmeier, told Reuters that the agency’s director general was seeking broad support for its work. “Tedros has frequently talked of his determination to build a global movement to promote high-level political leadership for health,” he said.
Under his authoritarian rule, the country’s health care system, like many of its public services, has suffered badly, with hospitals frequently lacking essential supplies and nurses and doctors regularly left without pay.
Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, described the W.H.O. appointment as “laughable,” according to The Guardian. A spokesman, Obert Gutu, was quoted as saying: “The Zimbabwe health delivery system is in a shambolic state. It is an insult.”
He added: “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.”
Hillel Neuer, the executive director of UN Watch, a human rights group, condemned the choice, saying: “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.”
The United Nations’ naming of ambassadors has run into trouble before.
In October, shortly after choosing António Guterres over seven female candidates for its top leadership position, the United Nations named the comic book heroine Wonder Woman as an honorary ambassador for “the empowerment of women and girls.”
Nearly 45,000 people signed a petition protesting the selection. The United Nations dropped the superhero in December.
Dr. Tedros, an Ethiopian, is the first African to lead the United Nations’ health agency. He took office this year, replacing Margaret Chan.
Mr. Neuer called on him on Twitter to reverse course on Mr. Mugabe: “@DrTedros I urge you to cancel your appointment of Mugabe as W.H.O. ‘good-will ambassador’ — he ruined Zimbabwe’s health.”