If the victims of this mass murder were white, would we have acted long ago?

If we don't intervene, you can toss your tear-stained copies of 'Schindler's List' on to a bonfire
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It's easy to get atrocity fatigue about the genocide ripping through Darfur in western Sudan. When I discuss it with otherwise well-informed people, they often reply, "Yes, but terrible things are always happening somewhere, aren't they?"

It's easy to get atrocity fatigue about the genocide ripping through Darfur in western Sudan. When I discuss it with otherwise well-informed people, they often reply, "Yes, but terrible things are always happening somewhere, aren't they?"

This is different. This is not the ordinary low-level persecutions that occur, alas, every day. This is not Thailand or Libya or Haiti. This is a deliberate attempt to wipe an entire group of people - the black inhabitants of Darfur - from the face of the earth. At least 50,000 people have been slaughtered - and the numbers are rising. This is a holocaust.

On 30 July, the United Nations gave the government in Sudan a deadline: Stop the genocide in Darfur and let in aid workers within 30 days, or else.

The response? The tyranny in Khartoum is laughing at the UN; the mass murder has not ceased. Arab Janjaweed militias are still systematically slaughtering whole villages. As Jack Straw was reminded when he visited refugee camps in Darfur yesterday, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs confirms that racist Sudanese militias are still launching helicopter gunship attacks against black people and disrupting basic food and medicine supplies.

The UN was founded to prevent all this. In 1948, the United Nations of the world resolved - in the shadow of Auschwitz - that if a genocide was launched, external intervention was not merely advisory, it was mandatory. More than a dozen genocides passed without UN action. By the time 800,000 people were hacked to death in just six weeks in Rwanda in 1994, the UN commitment sounded like a cruel joke.

But then the public and some decent politicians began to conduct a post-mortem into the Rwandan holocaust. General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian who had led the UN peace-keeping force in Rwanda, explained that if he had been given just 5,000 troops by the world's armies, he could have prevented the violence - just 5,000 troops for 800,000 lives. The UN's own internal investigation accepted these findings - more than a year too late for the people of Rwanda.

The case for this military intervention in Rwanda now, in retrospect, looks unanswerable; Tony Blair promised that if it happened again, "we would have a moral duty to act". It seemed that at last - half a century after it was written - some people were beginning to take the UN's declaration on genocide seriously.

And then the Janjaweed began to butcher their way through Darfur, and the world did not blink. Months after the first reports of this genocide reached the outside world, a puny UN resolution was waved in the direction of Khartoum. The punishment for not obeying the resolution? Well ... sanctions. Maybe.

Several countries are trying to justify inaction with grotesque word-play. Intervention is only legally required if the Darfur murders are technically defined as "genocide". The US Congress, John Kerry and several human rights groups have been using the term for months - but other countries (particularly France, which has oil interests in the region) have resisted it.

Blair's record of responding to genocide is mixed. He was a leading proponent of intervening in Kosovo before Slobodan Milosevic could murder the ethnic Albanian population, and he will be lauded by history for it. But - almost unnoticed in Britain - Blair has also supported Russia's repression in Chechnya. A third of the province's population has been murdered since the early 1990s. At some press conferences with Vladimir Putin, Blair has justified this as a legitimate response to Chechen "terrorism". Certainly, he has never pressured the Russians to stop this mass killing.

Political leaders are not benign, even in democracies. They will usually behave altruistically only if we - the public - strongly urge them to. Blair's conscience seems to have gravitated towards Sudan of its own accord, as it did towards Sierra Leone in 1998. But Blair will only overcome the massive obstacles to intervention - including antiquated UN structures that prevent the international body from enforcing its own founding principles - if we make him.

So where is the public pressure to make Blair stop the Sudanese holocaust? There has been only a muffled whine of protest. The reason on both left and right is racism.

If more than 50,000 white people had been murdered in an even more distant country - say, Zimbabwe - the British right would be disgusted that we were not coming to the aid of our "kith and kin". They have made far more fuss over the small number of white farmers who have been murdered by Robert Mugabe's tyranny than about the full-blown genocide in Darfur.

But racism from the right is not surprising. It's far harder to answer the question: Where are all the left-wing groups? Where are Ken Livingstone and Peter Hain? If black people were being massacred in Kansas with blatant support from the government in Washington DC, there would be a rolling left-wing occupation of Trafalgar Square that lasted for months, and rightly so. But on Darfur? Nothing.

During the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and during the Rwandan holocaust, there were strong left-wing voices calling for intervention. Now, in the aftermath of Iraq, the ability of the left to unite against genocide has collapsed. In its place there is extreme scepticism. Some suggest that Blair's interest in the current crisis is just a ruse to seize Sudan's oilfields.

There is an automatic assumption that everything our leaders say is a vicious lie, and any claim to benevolent intentions is duplicitous. The people of Darfur are paying for our inability to see that there are some forces out there worse than Blair and Bush - like the primal racist Janjaweed mobs.

In the absence of a mass campaign to stop the genocide, international efforts will continue to be pathetic. The best the UN will offer when its deadline runs out next week is, it seems, a sanctions regime against Sudan - details to be formulated sometime after thousands more corpses have piled up.

As the world has learned over the past decade - especially in Iraq - it is hard to impose sanctions without weakening civilians and leaving tyrannies even stronger. Even the "smart sanctions" proposed by some sincere opponents of the Janjaweed will have (at best) a slow and limited impact. Sanctions are a salve for our conscience, not a serious attempt to stop the murders.

The only country to send troops so far has been Rwanda; they know a genocide when they see one. Will a Coalition of the Willing send troops to join the Rwandans in Darfur when the UN deadline expires at the end of this week?

If not you can toss your tear-stained copies of Schindler's List on to a bonfire along with the people of western Sudan. All those times we muttered "never again" will be exposed yet again as a lie.