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Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe gestures as he attends the 2nd Session of the South Africa-Zimbabwe Bi-National Commission in Pretoria, South Africa October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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By Stephanie Nebehay and Kate Kelland

GENEVA/LONDON (Reuters) - The World Health Organization (WHO) should overturn its decision to appoint of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador, global health leaders said on Saturday, describing the move as unjustifiable and wrong.

The British government said Mugabe's appointment was "surprising and disappointing" and added that it risked overshadowing the WHO's global work.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the appointment at a high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Uruguay on Wednesday.

The meeting was attended by Mugabe, 93. He is blamed in the West for destroying his country's economy and numerous human rights abuses during his 37 years leading the country as either president or prime minister.

In a speech, Tedros praised 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 former Ethiopian health and foreign minister, who was elected last May as WHO's first African director-general, added: "Today I am also honoured to announce that President Mugabe has agreed to serve as a goodwill ambassador on NCDs for Africa to influence his peers in his region to prioritise NCDs."

But the NCD Alliance, which represents 28 international health groups seeking to combat chronic diseases, said it was "shocked and deeply concerned" to hear of the appointment, given Mugabe’s "long track record of human rights violations".

Jeremy Farrar, a leading global health specialist and director of the Wellcome Trust charity also said the decision was "deeply disappointing and wrong" and called on Tedros to be brave and reverse it.

"Robert Mugabe fails in every way to represent the values WHO should stand for and those that Dr Tedros has stood for since becoming DG and has done over many years," Farrar said. "Brave leaders are willing to listen, rethink and overturn bad decisions, this is one such case," he said.

WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said the WHO chief had made the move seeking broad support for the agency's work.

"Tedros has frequently talked of his determination to build a global movement to promote high-level political leadership for health," he said by e-mail.

Human rights activists also criticised the move.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based group UN Watch described the choice by WHO, a United Nations agency as "sickening".

"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," he said.

He noted that Mugabe himself had travelled to Singapore for medical treatment three times this year rather than in his homeland.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Kate Kelland Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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