The head of the World Health Organisation has said he was "rethinking the approach" as outrage widened over his decision to name Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe a goodwill ambassador.

"I'm listening. I hear your concerns. Rethinking the approach in light of WHO values. I will issue a statement as soon as possible", the director general of the UN health agency, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Twitter.

Mr Tedros had announced the appointment at a high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Uruguay on Wednesday.

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The meeting was attended by Mr Mugabe.

Mr Mugabe 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, Mr Tedros had 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".

Earlier today Minister for Health Simon Harris said the appointment was "offensive" and "bizarre". However, this evening he has welcomed the move to 'rethink' the approach by Mr Tedros.

The appointment of Mr Mugabe has also been denounced by politicians and human rights groups.

"When I heard of Robert Mugabe's appointment... quite frankly, I thought it was a bad April Fool's joke," Canada’s Premier Justin Trudeau said today.

Iain Levine, deputy executive director for programmes at Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter: "Given Mugabe's appalling human rights record, calling him a goodwill ambassador for anything embarrasses WHO and Dr Tedros."

WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said the WHO chief was 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.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based group UN Watch, issued a statement last night criticising the choice by WHO, a United Nations agency.

"The government of Robert Mugabe has brutalised human rights activists, crushed democracy dissidents, and turned the breadbasket of Africa and its health system into a basket-case.

"The notion that the UN should now spin this country as a great supporter of health is, frankly, sickening," Mr Neuer said.

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

Western diplomats also voiced surprise at the appointment and said they were unaware of the "decision-making structure" behind it.

In a statement today, the British government described the appointment as "surprising and disappointing".

A spokesman said: "President Mugabe's appointment is surprising and disappointing, particularly in light of the current US and EU sanctions against him.

"We have registered our concerns with WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

"Although Mugabe will not have an executive role, his appointment risks overshadowing the work undertaken globally by the WHO on non-communicable diseases."

Despite once being known as the breadbasket of southern Africa, in 2008 a charity released a report documenting failures in Zimbabwe's health system and blamed Mr Mugabe for policies that led to a man-made crisis.

Physicians for Human Rights found his government had "presided over the dramatic reversal of its population's access to food, clean water, basic sanitation and health care".

It went on: "The Mugabe regime has used any means at its disposal, including politicising the health sector, to maintain its hold on power."

The report said Mr Mugabe's policies had led to "the shuttering of hospitals and clinics, the closing of its medical school and the beatings of health workers".