BANGUI, C.A.R. - Rebel and militia leaders responsible for the worst crimes committed in Central African Republic have yet to be arrested, let alone prosecuted, the United Nations' top human rights official said Friday.
Thousands of Central Africans have died and more than 800,000 remain displaced after two years of fighting that erupted when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels toppled President Francois Bozize in 2013.
Christian "anti-balaka" militias then drove most Muslims from the south, leading to a de facto partition of the diamond-rich nation.
"The most notorious leaders, with much blood on their hands, are not being arrested, let alone prosecuted, tried and convicted," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said.
The International Criminal Court has begun investigating crimes committed during the fighting, and the government is prosecuting a number of members of armed groups. But Zeid described those arrested so far as "the small fry."
The international community and Central African Republic's neighbors pressured Seleka leader Michel Djotodia to step down as president last year. Rival armed groups agreed to a peace accord in May.
A transitional government is now charged with guiding the country to elections currently set for October 18, although preparations are falling behind and they will likely be delayed.
Zeid said the country's 9,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission and local authorities needed to take on the armed groups more robustly in order to stop abuses and create a deterrent to further crimes.
"If international forces begin arresting leading members of armed groups, there needs to be a functioning justice system to investigate, prosecute and bring judgment in fair trials, and adequate prisons in which to detain them," he said.
Plans to set up a special criminal court composed of both national and international judges are still a long way from being fulfilled, and donor support is needed to revamp the local justice system that will try less serious cases, he said.
"Justice and security are inextricably linked, and it is clear we all need to do much more to turn around the current vicious circle of violence and impunity," Zeid said.