Updated: 13 June 2012.

The president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, who said gay people ‘offend against the law of nature’ has been made a ‘leader for tourism’ by the UN’s World Tourism Organisation.

At a ceremony yesterday, Mr Mugabe and Michael Sata, the president of neighbouring Zambia, were made ‘leaders for tourism’ and it was announced they would co-host the UNWTO general assembly in August next year, the Guardian said (see update below).

Taleb Rifai, secretary general of UNWTO, said it was an “endorsement” that Zimbabwe was “a safe destination”, despite its president being banned from travel within the EU and US. UNTWO said it was not a formal position.

Homosexuality is illegal in Zimbabwe with laws from 2006 making it illegal for two people of the same sex to hold hands, hug, or kiss. The Censorship and Entertainments Control Act also stops citizens from importing, printing, publishing, distributing, or selling any publication which is ‘indecent or obscene or is offensive or harmful to public morals or is likely to be contrary to public health’.

Mugabe, who has previously described same-sex partners as ‘worse than pigs and dogs,’ suggested homosexuality would lead to extinction last week.

He said: “When a man says he wants to get married to another man, we in Zimbabwe don’t accept it. We can’t talk of women’s rights at all if we go in that direction. It will lead to extinction.”

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has recommended the suspension of Western sanctions against Zimbabwe in order to allow the country to implement reforms.

Visiting Harare, she said: “I would urge those countries that are currently applying sanctions on Zimbabwe to suspend them, at least until the conduct of the elections and related reforms are clear.

“Sanctions should be entirely suspended for people to entirely focus on economic issues that need to be addressed.”

The decision has prompted anger. Kumbi Muchemwa, a spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), told the Guardian: “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?”

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell told PinkNews.co.uk it was “astonishing that the UN could even think of making Mugabe a leader for tourism”.

He added: “He’s ruined the Zimbabwe economy and wrecked the tourism industry. Mugabe is not fit to be a leader of anything. It’s truly shocking that the UN is choosing to ignore the barbaric human rights abuses of his bloodthirsty regime. They’re rewarding his tyrrany when they should be isolating him and bringing criminal charges.”

Sandra Carvao, UNTWO’s communications co-ordinator, told the Guardian: “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.”

She added: “UNWTO does not have an ambassadors programme and the receiving of the UNWTO/WTTC [World Travel and Tourism Council] open letter implies no legal commitment or title attribution to the country or the head of state or government in question.”

Update at 13 June 2012 – The UNWTO issued a statement clarifying how Mr Mugabe had been asked to promote tourism and reiterating that “no legal commitment or official title” had been bestowed on him by the letter, which was sent to all heads of state globally.

It said: “Tourism is today a central sector for the future of all countries, particularly African countries, where it accounts for an increasing number of jobs, community developments and export earnings and thus, on the occasion of the signature of the above mentioned agreement, the Secretary-General presented the Presidents of Zambia and Zimbabwe with an Open Letter on Travel and Tourism.

“This Letter was sent to all heads of state and government worldwide and aims to raise awareness of the potential of tourism for development, job creation and economic growth. The Open Letter calls upon heads of state and government to support the tourism sector as it can contribute to build a better future for the people of their countries, if properly developed.”