Discuss as:

UN agency appoints Mugabe as a 'leader for tourism'

Joseph Mwenda / AFP - Getty Images

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe signs an agreement on Tuesday calling for the 2013 UNWTO General Assembly to be co-hosted by Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The United Nations has appointed Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as a "leader for tourism," sparking criticism from human rights activists, the Guardian reported.

The UN World Tourism Organization endorsed Mugabe, 88, along with his political ally, Zambian President Michael Sata, 75, as international envoys for the tourism initiative. The two African leaders will also co-host the organization's general assembly in August 2013.


Speaking in Victoria Falls, UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai endorsed Zimbabwe as a safe tourism destination, according to The Herald, Zimbabwe's state-owned newspaper.

"I was told about the wonderful experience and the warm hospitality of this country," Rifai said. “By coming here, it is recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is a safe destination." 

Mugabe and Sata also attended and signed the UNWTO agreement.

The development came as a shock to human rights activists. Widely regarded as a pariah in the West, Mugabe is blamed for running Zimbabwe's economy into the ground and for massive human rights abuses to keep his grip on power. He is also subject to a travel ban.

"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?" The Guardian quoted Kumbi Muchemwa, a spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party, as saying.

Advocacy officer Dewa Mavhinga of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition also criticized the appointment, telling the British newspaper: "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, who he says are worse than dogs."

Critics have also said that Mugabe's appointment damages the UNWTO's credibility.

"It undermines the reputation of the UNWTO as being detached from the reality on the ground in terms of human rights violations and political instability," University of Zimbabwe politics professor John Makumbe told The Guardian.

UNWTO said it had not awarded Mugabe an official title.

"Correct would be to say UNWTO has presented both presidents with an open letter which calls for them to support tourism as a means to foster sustainable development in their countries to the benefit of their people and consequently ask them to support the sector in this respect," communications coordinator Sandra Carvao told The Guardian.

More world news from msnbc.com and NBC News:

Follow us on Twitter: @msnbc_world