WITH A line-up that includes Drew Barrymore, David Beckham, Orlando Bloom and Ricky Martin, the United Nations’ 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 body’s credibility, as that greeting the appointment of a new international envoy for tourism: Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe.
Improbable as it seems, the man widely accused of ethnic cleansing, rigging elections, terrorising opposition, controlling media and presiding over a collapsed economy has been endorsed as a champion of efforts to boost global holidaymaking.
Mr Mugabe (88) and his political ally, Zambian president Michael Sata (75), have been honoured as “leaders for tourism” by the UN’s World Tourism Organisation. The pair signed an agreement with its secretary-general Taleb Rifai on their shared border at Victoria Falls.
Zimbabwe’s state-owned Herald newspaper quoted Mr Rifai as urging tourists from around the world to visit: “I was told about the wonderful experience and the warm hospitality of this country . . . It is recognition, an endorsement [of] the country that it is a safe destination.”
The agreement will also see the two southern African countries co-host the UN tourism body’s general assembly in August next year. It has denied appointing Mr 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 campaign.
The development has stunned human rights campaigners and political opponents who regard Mr Mugabe as a tyrant. Kumbi Muchemwa, a spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change, 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?”
Mr Mugabe and his allies are subject to EU and US sanctions that prevent him from travelling to countries including Britain, although he does attend the UN general assembly in New York.
Mr Muchemwa continued: “Robert 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 the arrival of tourists.”
There was also criticism from the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, an umbrella organisation of civil society groups. Dewa Mavhinga, its regional information and advocacy officer, said: “It boggles the mind how the UN could appoint Mugabe as an ambassador of any sort. I don’t think he’s an appropriate person.
“It sends the wrong message to Mugabe – that he is now acceptable to the international community. This is the same guy who last week was bashing gays and lesbians, whom he says are worse than dogs.”
Zimbabwe is rich in tourism potential, boasting attractions such as Victoria Falls, Great Zimbabwe and the Hwange wildlife game reserve, as well as possibly the best climate in the world. Its official brand entices with “a world of wonders”.
The past decade has hit the industry hard, with the national airline going bust, but there have been recent signs of a gradual recovery.