A litany of killing, rape, mutilation, pillage and torture committed by armed groups and forces loyal to successive governments in the Central African Republic from 2003-2015 may constitute crimes against humanity, the United Nations said in a report on Tuesday.
The 368-page mapping report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was based on more than 1,200 confidential and open sources. It is meant to help authorities identify cases as they establish a Special Criminal Court to try the worst crimes committed in the landlocked, isolated nation.
"The point is to send a signal, particularly to the 'big fish' ... that we have documented their crimes and will continue to document their crimes," Andrew Gilmour, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said.
Repeated political crises in CAR have fuelled conflict since 2003. The most recent violence erupted in 2013 when a mostly-Muslim rebel coalition overthrew then-president Francois Bozize, prompting reprisals from Christian militias.
Tit-for-tat violence is on the rise again despite a successful presidential election last year. In the past two weeks alone, fighting between militia groups has killed about 300 people and displaced 100,000, the worst bout of displacements since 2013.
The UN report said that perpetrators have enjoyed near total impunity throughout the period in question due to persistent insecurity and a feeble justice system, which has fuelled cycles of abuse.
It said that ending a decade-and-a-half of impunity would not be easily achieved. Even before the latest violence, armed groups controlled more than half the country, making it difficult for victims to come forward and for witnesses to testify.
After seizing power from President Ange-Felix Patasse in a March 2003 coup, forces loyal to Francois Bozize killed and tortured civilians in order to settle personal scores and pillaged UN and other diplomatic facilities, the report said.
A decade later, the Christian anti-Balaka militia again killed unarmed civilians, conducted public lynchings and mutilated victims in so-called "cleansing operations" against Muslims in retaliation for similar abuses by mostly Muslim rebels, it said.
The UN said it noted "serious violence against people on the basis of their religion, ethnicity or perceived support for armed groups." It said the court should consider investigating some of the incidents further as possible genocide.
A special prosecutor and four judges have been appointed to the new "special criminal court," two from Central Africa, one from Burkina Faso and one French national. This marks the first time CAR's justice system will prosecute crimes under international law.
"We know some people are getting anxious about this report," Gilmour said.
"We are talking of those who committed some of the most appalling violations, who are now aware that their actions were observed," he added.
"Naturally they are nervous that justice will catch up with them."