The United Nations human rights chief said Friday that Western sanctions against Zimbabwe's president and his loyalists should be suspended, at least until elections, saying the measures have hurt the country's poorest and most vulnerable people.

U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay said the sanctions act as a disincentive to foreign banks and investors and appear to have cut down certain imports and exports. These unintended side-effects affect the overall economy and, in turn, the country's poorest and most vulnerable populations who also face political instability and violence, she said.

President Robert Mugabe's party blames sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States for a decade of economic turmoil. But critics say the mess was Mugabe's own doing, pointing to the often-violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms that began in 2000 and that disrupted the agriculture-based economy.

Western nations insist that their sanctions target only political leaders and don't hurt ordinary Zimbabweans. They were implemented to protest the land seizures and the human rights record of Mugabe's ZANU PF party,

Allegations of rights violations by Mugabe and his associates that led to face restrictions on travel and business dealings should be resolved in courts of law, said Pillay, winding up a five-day visit to assess human rights in Zimbabwe. It was the first trip by a UN human rights commissioner to Zimbabwe.

Unless the nation's coalition government quickly agrees on key reforms, upcoming polls could be a repeat of rampant abuses that occurred in the last elections, in 2008, she warned. Those polls saw politically motivated killings, torture, rapes, beatings, arbitrary detentions and other violations and left the nation "on the brink of catastrophe," she said.

The UN envoy said Mugabe's land seizures caused misery not only to forcibly evicted white farm owners but also to tens of thousands of farm workers who lost jobs and became destitute overnight. Many prime farms that were allocated to Mugabe loyalists and cronies still lie idle.

"There is, after all, no merit in taking sizable quantities of land from one elite, only to give it to another," Pillay said.

She said the extreme polarization in Mugabe's coalition with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader, is a major impediment to the protection of human rights.