By any civilised standards, the slaughter of 50,000 people constitutes genocide. So far, however, no member of the UN Security Council has used this term to describe the massacres in the Darfur region of Sudan, presumably because to do so would, under international law, carry the legal imperative to intervene to halt the killings. Far from acting decisively to end the suffering in Darfur, the international community has dragged its heels shamefully on what the UN itself has described as the world's "worst humanitarian disaster".
Russia, Algeria and Pakistan all diluted a UN resolution giving Sudan a deadline to disarm the Janjaweed militia. It is highly significant, therefore, that the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, should state, as he did yesterday, that the atrocities carried out in Darfur constitute genocide. Until now, the State Department has argued that there was insufficient evidence to justify using the legal definition. Yesterday, Mr Powell stated clearly that "genocide has been committed in Darfur". He also said that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed militia "bear responsibility - and genocide may still be occurring".
This declaration has important political significance. Its timing, as the Security Council prepares to discuss imposing oil sanctions on Sudan, is bound to intensify pressure on reluctant governments to accept the moral obligation to act. Mr Powell's citing of article VIII of the UN genocide convention, and his call for a full investigation into Sudan's failure to prevent genocide, goes even further. That clause provides that parties to the convention may call on the UN to take such action under the UN charter "as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide..."
If the UN had accepted the use of the term genocide to describe the slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994, military intervention might have saved lives. Instead, it went unpunished by Western governments. Mr Powell's statement is a hopeful first sign that those governments capable of acting may, this time, be showing a willingness to do so.