Darfur: Three years of carnage; 200,000 dead; 2.5 million displaced; one question ...

... why, when Condoleezza Rice wants action and the West wants an end to the violence, is the UN silent? David Usborne reports from New York
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Western leaders vowed this weekend to stop the violence in the Darfur region of Sudan as they left New York after the annual United Nations opening conclave. But once again they were unable to summon any agreement on how exactly they mean to do it.

Their paralysis was on display late on Friday at a special UN Security Council meeting convened by Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State. "The violence in Darfur is not subsiding: it is getting worse," Ms Rice said. "If the notion of our responsibility to protect the weakest and most powerless among us is ever to be more than an empty promise, then we must take action to save lives."

Yet the meeting, attended also by African and Arab countries, broke up with no one able to say with confidence that the action Ms Rice speaks of will be forthcoming any time soon. And all the while, the news from Darfur worsened. UN monitors reported new bombing raids on villages in northern Darfur and incidents of sexual assault and harassment further south.

After three years of carnage, which has left at least 200,000 people dead and 2.5 million displaced, there was a shared recognition that Darfur can no longer be neglected. Lord Triesman, the British minister for African affairs, who attended the meeting, told The Independent on Sunday that domestic political pressure to intervene has become irresistible. "The images of Rwanda 10 years ago are too powerful for this to go on any longer," he said.

But the Western powers, though they will not say so publicly, are stymied. The Security Council may have agreed this summer to deploy a blue-helmeted peacekeeping force in Darfur to put a stop to the violence, but - at the behest of China, Sudan's most important friend among the big powers - it included a disastrous caveat: the government in Khartoum must accept the force before it goes in.

Thus the Security Council handed Khartoum a veto, which it is exercising with grim relish. One word rang around the UN building last week, spoken by the Sudanese President, Omar al- Bashir. After leaving a meeting of African Union heads of government on Tuesday called to discuss Darfur, a reporter asked if he would consider allowing the UN troops in. He replied: "No." He elaborated later at a press conference: "No" and "under no circumstances".

This leaves the option to impose the UN peacekeepers on Sudan by force. And while Western leaders may hint at taking such a step - President George Bush did so on Tuesday - no one is willing to say in terms that they are seriously contemplating it. Indeed, it is America, with its own memories of humiliation and troop loss in Somalia, which would probably be the least willing.

The reluctance is easy to understand. China is a veto-wielding power and clings to the notion that national sovereignty is sacrosanct. The Arab League would almost certainly condemn it. Yet inaction leaves the West open to the obvious charge: that they put a lower value on the lives of villagers in Sudan than on those of villagers in Lebanon. It took 30 days - not three years - to deploy a force there.

"The harsh truth is that some lives are slightly more important than others ... If you are swarthy, of a darker hue, almost always you are going to end up at the bottom of the pile," Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, shortly before the Security Council passed its peacekeeping resolution.

So what we have from New York is a fudge on Darfur, albeit a slightly improved one. At their own meeting, the leaders of the African Union agreed, reluctantly, to extend the mandate of their force now in Darfur for another three months. Everyone's greatest fear - that the AU would withdraw its 7,000 soldiers and monitors on 30 September - was thus allayed.

But in practice, the AU mission has been close to useless thus far. The villagers do not trust the poorly equipped African soldiers, who in turn have done almost nothing to prevent attacks by militias loyal to Khartoum. The few helicopters rarely take off, because there is no fuel and the troops do little except watch and report back.

A UN mission would be different. It would number over 20,000 troops, it would be properly equipped and it would have a mandate to use real force.

In theory, steps will be taken in the coming days to give the African force some of the wherewithal to be more effective. The UN said on Friday it would send 100 communications experts to give them a hand. Rwanda and other countries may shortly announce increased levels of troop contributions. But expanding the AU force will take money. The Arab League promised last week to provide some cash, but they have said that before without actually digging into their pockets.

Ms Rice said there would be no "appeasing" Khartoum, and new pressure would be applied on it to accept the UN troops. Yet the danger exists that as the months pass and more innocent lives are lost, the West will abandon the blue-helmet plan and quietly settle for leaving the AU force on the ground - a force that may become larger and better equipped, but which will always lack teeth.