Kenya and other countries in the East Africa bloc have condemned reports of widespread sexual violence, including torture, rape and gang rape of women and young girls, by soldiers and unidentified armed men in South Sudan.
The Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) called on South Sudan authorities to identify and punish perpetrators of rape with the view of ending impunity.
“IGAD appeals to the parties to create an enabling environment for survivors to report acts of rape and other related crimes access requisite services (health, psychosocial, justice) without fear of stigmatisation or reprisal,” it said in a statement received in Juba.
The regional bloc said such horrendous acts constitute grave violations of international human rights law and may be regarded as war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The bloc expressed its disappointment on the recent eruption of conflict in Juba and surrounding areas and the emergence of conflict-related sexual violence, especially rape of women and girls in South Sudan.
Since the fighting erupted in the capital, Juba, on July 8, the UN has continued to receive reports of this kind of inhumane behaviour, despite calls to all parties for its cessation.
Deadly clashes between rival factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and former First Vice-President Riek Machar have sent thousands of civilians fleeing city.
IGAD called on major parties to the conflict to recall commitments made in the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement they signed in 2014 specifically to refrain from “any acts of rape, sexual abuse and torture”.
Under the agreement, parties pledged to institute measures such as issuance/ enforcement of orders through military and police chains of command prohibiting sexual violence; establishing accountability mechanisms; exclusion of perpetrators from the security forces and from amnesty provisions; and enhanced multi-sectoral services for survivors.
“IGAD appeals to the parties to the conflict in South Sudan to institute the above measures and take immediate steps towards stopping, reversing, preventing and ending all acts of conflict related sexual violence against women and girls,” it said.
The regional bloc reaffirmed its commitment to continue working with all international, continental and regional stakeholders including the AU, UN and other partners to foster implementation of the 2015 peace deal.
At the same time, the UN refugee agency (UNHRC) has expressed concerns over escalating lawlessness in South Sudan.
Refugees say they received letters warning them to evacuate the town in anticipation of conflict between rebel and government forces.
Refugees have also reported that armed groups operating across different parts of South Sudan are looting villages, restricting movement and forcibly recruiting young men and boys in to their ranks.
Melissa Fleming, the agency’s spokesperson has said refugees arriving in camps in Uganda and Kenya say armed groups operating on roads to Uganda are preventing people from fleeing South Sudan.
According to the agency, refugee flows from South Sudan into Uganda have doubled in the past ten days, bringing the total to more than 52,000 who have entered the country since violence escalated three weeks ago.
Kenya has reported the arrival of 1,000 refugees in the same period, while 7,000 have fled to Sudan.
In total, 60,000 people have fled the country since violence broke out in Juba last month, bringing the overall number of South Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries since December 2013 to nearly 900,000.
Part of this article was published by Xinhua.