HARARE - United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has urged Western countries to suspend sanctions on Zimbabwe and its president - Robert Mugabe - to give the country a chance to implement reforms. The call came as Pillay ended her landmark five-day visit Friday.
Navi Pillay, a former South African High Court judge who has also served on the International Criminal Court, told reporters here in Harare Friday that sanctions imposed on President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF party leadership are hindering economic progress in Zimbabwe.
“While it is difficult to disentangle the specific causes of Zimbabwe’s major social and economic ills, 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," said Pillay. "It is also likely that the stigma of sanctions has limited certain imports and exports. I would urge those countries that are currently applying sanctions on Zimbabwe to suspend them, at least until the conduct and outcome of the elections and related reforms are clear.”
The United States and European Union laid sanctions on Mugabe and his Zanu PF party leadership in 2002 - following reports of election rigging and human rights abuses.
The disputed 2008 elections only solidified Western concern. Mugabe claimed victory, but was forced by regional powers into a coalition with the opposition MDC and Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister.
Mugabe actually extended the invitation to former jurist Pillay, in the hope of clearing his government from persisting allegations of rights abuses ahead of the next crucial elections.
The call to lift sanctions may be a boost for the Zimbabwe president, but the rest of Pillay's visit did not deliver all the desired results. She did not support his call for elections this year to replace the divided coalition government. Instead she sided with MDC Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, saying human rights abuses continue and legal reforms were needed before there could be a fair vote.
“Unless the parties agree quickly on some key major reforms, before the next election - which should be held some time in the coming year - could turn into a repeat of the 2008 elections which resulted in rampant politically motivated human rights abuses, including killings, torture, rapes, beatings, arbitrary detention, displacements and other violations," she said.
On a more positive note, several people told me they believe that, if the country can get through the next 18 months or so without another political and human rights problem, it could finally turn the corner towards renewed stability and prosperity.”
Zimbabwe Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa told reporters that the targeted sanctions should be lifted unconditionally and not suspended for elections, as recommended by the UN chief.
He says Pillay has no right to dictate when the Zimbabweans could hold elections.
"When elections are to be held is an internal Zimbabwean matter," said Chinamasa. "I just wish outsiders could keep away from commenting on our internal processes. Parties are agreed to have elections soon after completion of a new constitution process. If that process becomes protracted to a point where it is difficult to hold elections this year, then there might be parting of ways between that process and elections…"
Besides calling for reforms, the UN rights chief warned the Army - which has openly supported Mugabe - to remain neutral in the next election. Pillay also called on Zimbabwe's government to repeal laws that restrict the rights of activists and journalists.
Zimbabwe must hold elections by June 2013. But delays in ratifying a new constitution because of political infighting has put that deadline in doubt.
Analysts say the Zanu-PF wants to hold elections sooner rather than later, while the 88-year-old Mugabe is still strong enough to campaign.