Darfur has already become a monument to the world's failure to keep its promises

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The desperate haggling that has been going on all week within the United Nations Security Council over Darfur sums up perfectly the inadequate manner in which the world, as a whole, has reacted to the emergency there. The resolution before the Security Council was to give the International Criminal Court jurisdiction to pursue those suspected of committing war crimes in the western region of Sudan. That action is needed, no one on the Security Council was in doubt. But they could not agree on the wording.

The desperate haggling that has been going on all week within the United Nations Security Council over Darfur sums up perfectly the inadequate manner in which the world, as a whole, has reacted to the emergency there. The resolution before the Security Council was to give the International Criminal Court jurisdiction to pursue those suspected of committing war crimes in the western region of Sudan. That action is needed, no one on the Security Council was in doubt. But they could not agree on the wording.

Earlier this week, the Commons International Development Committee made it clear just how desperate things have become in Darfur. The World Health Organisation initially estimated that the number of civilians killed by the vicious Janjaweed militia was around 70,000. But the Committee pointed out that this is likely to be a considerable underestimate. The figure is based on the number of violent deaths in refugee camps. In reality, the number of civilians who have been slaughtered is likely to be more than 400,000. And this is still going on. The scale of the killing is fast approaching that last seen in Rwanda a decade ago.

In the years after that terrible catastrophe, the world swore it would never let it happen again. But how easily such oaths appear to be broken. As the Committee pointed out, the international response to the Darfur crisis has been "scandalously ineffective". We have heard many fine words, of course. Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State, went before the United Nations to call what is going on in Darfur "genocide". The Sudanese government has been condemned from all sides for its consistent failure to disarm the Janjaweed militia.

But what has actually been achieved? A contingent of African Union peacekeepers has been sent to the region, but there are far too few of them adequately to protect the people of Darfur. Nor have they been able to protect foreign aid workers. Save the Children had to pull out its entire staff after four were killed in December last year. Yet the Sudanese government has been able to wriggle off the hook time and again by claiming it has no real control over what is going on in Darfur.

That was never a plausible claim. Who else could have provided the aerial cover that the Janjaweed militia often enjoys? How is it possible to explain the systematic way the militia has gone about driving people from their villages, unless there has been a considerable degree of co-ordination from a high level? Even if the Sudanese government has not always been in full control, it has certainly chosen to protect the Janjaweed. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, culpable for the massacres that have resulted.

The UN has floundered pathetically in the face of this growing emergency. It initially allowed considerations about a peace accord in another part of Sudan to distract it from the atrocities of Darfur. Countries sympathetic to Sudan on the Security Council - China, Russia, Pakistan and Algeria -buried attempts to impose sanctions. And the United States has been just as much to blame for the lamentable failure as anyone. Despite Mr Powell's tough words, the US has been loath to take a lead. Sucked into a violent quagmire in Iraq, America has been happy for the world's attention to drift. The Bush administration regards the ICC as part of a covert agenda to put US soldiers on trial, and has repeatedly blocked moves to bring it into play. This week's haggling was over how to frame the resolution so as not to harm the ideological sensibilities of the administration.

Optimists claim that the world's patience with the Sudanese government is exhausted. But if there is a new sense of resolution, it must be translated into action to help those who are at grave risk on the ground. Otherwise it is worthless. For many thousands it is already too late. Whatever happens now, Darfur has already become another monument to the deadly lethargy of the international community in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe.

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