With human rights organisations clamouring for prosecutions to be carried out by the International Criminal Court (ICC) after the publication of a UN commission into the Darfur killings, pressure was mounting on Tony Blair to show his hand.
A showdown is already looming between the European Union, which backs Darfur prosecutions through the ICC, and the US, which is implacably opposed to the court and has circulated unofficial compromise proposals.
But European diplomats said there were already signs that Britain, a founder member of the ICC, was "less than one hundred per cent" behind the tribunal, and was peeling off from the rest of the EU.
"We've seen that in our discussions in Brussels and New York," where the UN Security Council is expected to discuss its response to the UN report on Friday, said a senior French diplomat. France, a permanent council member, is pushing for ICC prosecutions over Darfur.
The UN commission concluded the ICC should investigate those accused of the atrocities "which may amount to crimes against humanity". But the 176-page report said the massacre of 70,000 people and forced displacement of nearly two million did not constitute genocide by the Sudanese government and allied militias. The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, said: "The crimes against humanity and war crimes that have been committed in Darfur may be no less serious and heinous than genocide."
The British envoy to the UN, Sir Emyr Jones-Parry, said the ICC was "tailor-made" to try such crimes as detailed in the UN report. That view was backed by the secretary general of Amnesty International, Irene Khan, and by Human Rights Watch, which said setting up an ad hoc tribunal would be "time-consuming and complicated".
But in London, Mr Blair's spokesman declined to say whether Britain backed the ICC, fuelling concern among Britain's partners on the security council. It had been hoped that Britain would help persuade the United States to end its opposition to the ICC in the interests of a speedy prosecution of Darfur suspects.
"The ICC was set up for this purpose," said the French diplomat, who pointed to the "contradiction" in the position of the US, which has declared the Darfur killings to be genocide, while refusing to support ICC prosecutions.
UN diplomats said that Britain's attitude appeared to be dictated by its close relationship with the Bush administration. "There are also questions about whether Japan will become the second US poodle" on the council, one said.Reuse content