With a line-up that includes Drew Barrymore, David Beckham, Orlando Bloom and Ricky Martin, the UN’s choice of ambassadors has been known to cause raised eyebrows or the odd smirk.
Seldom, however, has there been such anger, or questioning of the organization’s credibility, as that greeting the appointment of a new international envoy for tourism: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.
Improbable as it seems, Mugabe, who is widely accused of ethnic cleansing, rigging elections, terrorizing opposition, controlling media and presiding over a collapsed economy, has been endorsed as a champion of efforts to boost global holidaymaking.
Despite Mugabe, 88, being under a travel ban, he has been honored as a “leader for tourism” by the UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), along with his political ally, Zambian President Michael Sata, 75. The pair signed an agreement with UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai at their shared border at Victoria Falls on Tuesday.
Zimbabwe’s state-owned Herald newspaper quoted Rifai urging tourists from around the world to visit: “I was told about the wonderful experience and the warm hospitality of this country ... By coming here, it is recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is a safe destination.”
The agreement will also see the two southern African countries co-host the UNWTO General Assembly in August next year.
The UNWTO said it had not appointed Mugabe to any formal position, but acknowledged he would receive an open letter like other heads of state who have joined its leaders for tourism campaigns.
The development has stunned human rights campaigners and political opponents, who regard Mugabe as a tyrant.
Kumbi Muchemwa, a spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said: “I can’t see any justification for the man being an ‘ambassador.’ An ambassador for what? The man has blood on his hands. Do they want tourists to see those bloody hands?”
Meanwhile, British MP Kate Hoey, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Zimbabwe, said: “It is an absolute scandal — and an affront to the people of Zimbabwe, who didn’t vote for Mugabe as their president, but had him imposed because he used violence and the armed forces to hang onto power in defiance of the democratic will of the people of Zimbabwe.”
“For a man who has destroyed his country’s infrastructure and cynically engineered hunger to be an ‘ambassador’ for tourism is disgraceful — particularly as he has been personally responsible for the downward spiral of the economy and destroyed the hotel, travel and tourism industry in the process,” she added.
Mugabe and his allies are subject to EU and US sanctions preventing them from traveling to EU countries including Britain, although he does attend the UN General Assembly in New York.
Muchemwa added: “Mugabe is under international sanctions, so how do you have an international tourism ambassador who can’t travel to other countries?”
“The UN is losing credibility in this process. Does it think people should go to a country where the law is not obeyed? An MDC activist was murdered last Saturday. Zimbabwe is doing things which don’t encourage tourists,” he added.