The astonishing decision last month by Tedros Adhanom, the recently appointed head of the World Health Organization (WHO), to name Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as goodwill ambassador only underlines what’s wrong with the United Nations and why there is such a desperate need for radical reform. (See article on UN whistleblowing and reform by Yves Beigbeder, who served as a young legal aide with the French judge at Nuremberg)
It also shocked many within the UN, who, as one senior manager put it, could not believe such ‘idiocy’. “So many of us have worked so hard to respond to real concerns and then something like this undoes it all,” the employee said. This was clearly not the sort of WHO leadership the international aid community had in mind. While some staff felt the former Ethiopian Foreign Minister had the right to one or two mistakes, others demanded that he resign.
Donor pressure but also various international aid representatives, including his own horrified advisors, quickly obliged Tedros to revoke his unilateral appointment, which he had announced via Twitter. But the damage was done. His decision demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of UN values.
How the naming of an utterly corrupt despot (see earlier Global Geneva article plus a select list on the ways abusive African leaders, including Mugabe, cling to power) whose regime has murdered, beaten up and otherwise repressed tens of thousands, forced several million into exile and destroyed the country’s economy – and health system – would help promote UN ideals boggles the mind. The fact that Mugabe recently served as chairman of the African Union, which is based in Addis Abeba, and has been rarely criticized by any African leader for his oppressive policies does not justify any such honour.
The Tedros’ tenure will probably now be marked by the “Mugabe affair” for years to come, not unlike the 1974 Nestlé baby milk scandal which continues to haunt the Swiss-based multinational over 40 years later. While it may also underline the Trump-like folly of trying to dictate policy via Twitter – once it’s out there, it’s out there – it accentuates the need for more incisive reporting as a means for promoting constant public oversight. The United Nations was created to benefit humanity, not political cronyism, but this needs constant reminding.

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