Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has been removed as a World Health Organization goodwill ambassador after his appointment was greeted with outrage among donors and rights groups.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who made the appointment at a high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Uruguay on Wednesday, said in a statement on Sunday he had listened to those expressing concerns.
"Over the last few days, I have reflected on my appointment of HE President Robert Mugabe as WHO goodwill ambassador for NCDs in Africa. As a result I have decided to rescind the appointment," Mr Tedros said on his Twitter account. The decision had been taken after consultation with the Harare government and was "in the best interests of the World Health Organization", he said.
Minister for Health Simon Harris had described the appointment as offensive and bizarre. He said Mr Mugabe's appointment would distract from WHO's very important work programme.
Mr Mugabe, the 93-year-old African leader, who has long faced US sanctions over his government's human rights violations, received the title in Montevideo, Uruguay, from Mr Tedros.
When he made the appointment Mr Tedros had lauded 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 role of goodwill ambassador is largely symbolic, but rights groups were scathing in their reaction to the symbolism of giving it to a man whose leadership, they say, has led to the collapse of its health service and major rights abuses in Zimbabwe.
Jeremy Farrar, a global health specialist and director of the Wellcome Trust charity and the NCD alliance, representing health groups combating chronic diseases, welcomed the reversal.
“Dr Tedros deserves all our support to ensure he and WHO build a global health movement that is inclusive and works to improve health for everyone,” Mr Farrar said in a statement.
Several former and current WHO staff had said privately they were appalled at the “poor judgment” and “miscalculation” by Mr Tedros, elected the first African head of WHO in May.
Mr Mugabe was head of the African Union when the bloc endorsed Mr Tedros – a former health and foreign minister of Ethiopia – over other African candidates for the top post, without any real regional contest, they said.
The United States, which has imposed sanctions on Mr Mugabe for alleged human rights violations, had voiced disappointment. "He [Tedros] has to remember where his funding comes from," said one health official who declined to be identified. The Trump administration, which is already questioning financial support for some United Nations agencies, is WHO's largest single donor.
The WHO is struggling to recover a reputation tarnished by its slowness in tackling the Ebola epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa from 2014-2015 under Mr Tedros’ predecessor Margaret Chan. The agency is grappling with a massive cholera outbreak in Yemen that has infected some 800,000 people in the past year and a plague outbreak in Madagascar that has killed nearly 100 in two months.