President Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence from Britain in 1980
United Nations Human Rights chief Navi Pillay urges Western countries to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe and its president, Robert Mugabe

United Nations Human Rights chief Navi Pillay has called for Western countries to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe and its president, Robert Mugabe.

Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, was speaking at the end of a five-day visit to the country.

She asked the West to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe and Mugabe in order to give the country a chance to achieve economic recovery.

"I would urge those countries that are currently applying sanctions in Zimbabwe to suspend them, at least, until the conduct and outcome of the elections and related reforms are clear," she said.

The sanctions, which she described as "targeted", hit the poor the hardest, she said.

"There seems little doubt that the existence of the sanctions regimes has, at the very least, acted as a serious disincentive to overseas banks and investors.

"It is also likely that the stigma of sanctions has limited certain imports and exports. Taken together, these and other unintended side effects will, in turn, inevitably have had a negative impact on the economy at large, with possibly quite serious ramifications for the country's poorest and most vulnerable populations."

Further explaining the reasoning behind her new stance on sanctions, Pillay added: "I have yet to hear a single Zimbabwean inside the country say they definitely think sanctions should continue."

The UN human rights chief acknowledged the country has made some progress in advancing women's rights, pointing out that "half of the supreme court judges are now female and there are a number of women ministers and senior public officials".

She warned, however, that maternal mortality has continued to rise over the past two decades, from 283 deaths per 100,000 births in 1994 to around 960 per 100,000 in 2010-2011.

She also called on the government of Zimbabwe to pass new laws to protect women from political violence during the next elections, due to be held next year.

The European Union has already lifted some sanctions against Zimbabwe, but has maintained travel and financial restrictions on Mugabe and his top aides.

Pillay's call came just a few days after Zimbabwe attorney general Johannes Tomana filed a lawsuit against the EU to try to get the sanctions removed on Mugabe and his aides, which he said are illegal and violate their rights.