DAKAR, Senegal – A sweeping new United Nations report identifies hundreds of human rights violations in Central African Republic since 2003 that may amount to war crimes, including massacres, gang rapes and entire villages burned to the ground.
Tuesday's report comes amid growing fears that the country terrorized by multiple armed groups is once again slipping into the sectarian bloodshed that left thousands dead between late 2013 and 2015.
U.N. investigators highlight more than 600 abuses over a 12-year period, and are urging both prosecution and the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission. While the report refrains from identifying the alleged perpetrators unless they are already the subject of sanctions or an arrest warrant, those identities are known and are being kept in a confidential database, officials said.
"In documenting the violations and abuses of the past, we hope to galvanize national and international efforts to protect and bring justice to the victims of these crimes," said Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, the U.N. special representative for the country.
The International Criminal Court is already examining abuses dating back to 2003 in Central African Republic.
While the U.N. report does not characterize the worst sectarian violence as genocide, it does "identify facts which may warrant further investigation to determine whether the elements of the crime may have been met."
Central African Republic exploded into violence in late 2013 after mostly Muslim rebels from the Seleka coalition terrorized civilians in the capital until the Seleka leader stepped down from power. A mainly Christian militia that arose in opposition to the rebels then carried out horrific violence against Muslim civilians in retaliation, even though few of them supported Seleka in the first place.
At one point, Muslims were stoned to death with rocks by mobs in the street, at times decapitated and mutilated. Those fleeing for their lives in truck convoys to the country's north and beyond to Chad were slain by mobs in many cases.
Violence ebbed with the installation of a civilian transitional government and with the arrival of U.N. peacekeepers who replaced a regional force. The country held fairly peaceful national elections in 2016, though this year has seen an explosion of sectarian conflict in areas previously untouched by such tensions such as the southeast.
The fragile peace is in many ways maintained by separation. Many towns no longer have Muslim communities after people fled and never returned. Mosques have been destroyed.
More than 500,000 people remain internally displaced while others remain in neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Congo, officials said.
While Tuesday's report urges justice to be done, it also offers a grim view of the challenges: Armed groups still control more than half the country. Most courts were looted and destroyed during the rampant violence by armed groups.
"The number of police personnel, their equitable deployment across the country and the resources available to them, considering the country's vast geography, are wanting," the report says. "Magistrates appointed to the courts in many of the provinces and other judiciary personnel often choose to remain in Bangui because of insecurity and a lack of amenities for their work and welfare. Virtually all the country's lawyers are based in Bangui."
Any criminal proceedings must include those equipped to work with sexual violence survivors, the report says. More than 650 victims were reported between December 2013 and July 2014 alone. In one case, a single victim was raped by up to 20 perpetrators, the report says.
It references the recent case of former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre as one possible example. Habre was convicted last year of crimes against humanity in a special court set up Senegal. The charges included rape and forced sexual slavery carried out by subordinates under the legal principle of "command responsibility."
Tuesday's report says the violence committed by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels could constitute crimes against humanity, along with the retaliatory violence carried out by the mostly Christian anti-Balaka against Muslim civilians.
A "campaign of killings and persecution" by government soldiers against civilians in the north-central and northwest regions between 2006 and 2009 also could constitute crimes against humanity, it says.