United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanetham Pillay.

UN rights chief Navi Pillay on Friday urged Western countries to suspend sanctions against Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe and his close aides to give the country a chance to implement much-needed reforms.

“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,” she said in Harare after a five-day visit.

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

Zimbabwe immediately welcomed Pillay's calls, with Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa saying the embargo should be scrapped “unconditionally”.

“We want sanctions to be lifted unconditionally. We do not want any talk about suspension of sanctions, they have to be lifted unconditionally because in the first instance they are illegal,” he told a news conference shortly after Pillay spoke.

The European Union and the US imposed a visa ban and assets freeze on Mugabe and dozens of top officials, as well as an arms embargo on the country following disputed presidential polls in 2002.

The United States vowed last week that it would not lift the sanctions on Mugabe unless there are signs of permanent political reforms.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton earlier this month hailed ongoing political reforms in the country but stopped short of pledging a quick easing of sanctions.

In February, the 27-nation EU lifted the ban on 51 of 150 people targeted by the restrictive measures and 20 of 30 companies under EU sanctions imposed in 2002.

Pillay, a former South African judge, whose term as the UN rights chief was on Thursday renewed by two years, met during her five-day trip to Zimbabwe with Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

Former opposition leader Tsvangiari joined the long-ruling Mugabe in a unity government formed in 2009 to halt election-linked bloodshed that killed more than 200 of the premier's supporters.

Pillay said she told Mugabe to ensure free and violence-free elections in future.

“Concern is also rising both inside and outside the country that, unless the parties agree quickly on some key major reforms and there is a distinct shift in attitude, the next election... could turn into a repeat of the 2008 elections which resulted in rampant politically motivated human rights abuses,” she said.

Justice minister Chinamasa pledged that Zimbabwe “will co-operate with the human rights council, we have told them so.”

Pillay bemoaned divisions within the power-sharing government.

“This polarisation is acting as a major impediment on a number of fronts, including the advancement of human rights,” she said.

Elections without key reforms will be “catastrophic” for the country, she warned.

Zimbabwe's unity government is meant to clear the way to new elections, but preparations are lagging years behind and no date has been set.

Mugabe, 88, has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980. - Sapa-AFP