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Leading Article: The abuses of Darfur must be dealt with in the International Criminal Court

WHAT TO do about Darfur? Overshadowed by the cataclysm of the tsunami and the elections in Iraq, the continuing murder and violence in the Darfur region of western Sudan has been pushed to the edges of international concern. Not for much longer. The massacres have continued unabated, with the particularly horrendous bombing of a village by a Sudanese military aircraft only last week.

At the summit of the African Union in Abuja, Nigeria, over the past two days and at the meeting of foreign ministers of the EU in Brussels yesterday one pressing question has been to the fore. What should the outside world do when the issue comes up for debate at the United Nations later this week on the publication of the organisation's long-awaited formal report into events in that troubled region?

Judging from the sense of satisfaction in the Sudanese government, the UN report will not find a proven case for genocide - a finding which will disappoint Washington and please Khartoum. The formal charge of genocide is a legal construct that would have brought an automatic sequence of punishments in the form of sanctions and, eventually, direct intervention on the Sudanese government.

But for that very reason, the question of genocide has proved something of a diversion as far as dealing with Darfur is concerned. That the most horrendous level of violence has been perpetrated on innocent civilians is not in dispute. Even the most conservative estimates now suggest that some 600,000-800,000 men, women and children have been killed, and a further 1.5 - 2 million civilians displaced, by the depredations of the Janjaweed militia. Nor, from the evidence of those who have managed to escape the killings, is there much doubt of government complicity in these crimes, both active in the form of aerial bombardment and passive in the sense of allowing the violence to continue under their eyes.

The government claims that these actions are isolated cases of uncontrolled brutality by groups over which it has no control. The persistent pattern of massacres over the past year, their continuation in the past few months despite international outrage, and the clear protection afforded to the perpetrators make the protestations of government ministers in Khartoum hollow and mendacious.

Whether the violence is a product of a deliberate campaign to exterminate a people, a "genocide" as such, or whether it is the result of unrestrained brutality by one section of the community against another as part of a struggle for resources and a battle over independence, is beside the point. The fact is that these massacres are happening and they could be stopped.

The question now is how to stop them and how best to bring their perpetrators to justice. Khartoum must be made aware of the international disapproval it now faces and, more importantly, it must be made to understand that the UN means business when it threatens action. Of course, it is not easy. Regional politics - and the reluctance of the Third World countries to join in any campaign that looks as if it is led from the West - makes united action by the UN difficult. But Kofi Annan, speaking to the African Union on Sunday, sounded a clear note of determination and he should be heard. It is time that Sudan was faced with precise actions rather than just noisy disapproval.

As for justice against the perpetrators, that too should take real shape. The International Criminal Court was set up for precisely this sort of situation. There are crimes and there are people believed to have carried them out. The US has always opposed the court, preferring a more general extension of Rwanda-type tribunals on an ad hoc basis. But the course of individual justice, free from political issues of general guilt and blame, is the most effective one. Britain's dithering yesterday in Brussels for fear of offending the US is misplaced. This country was one of the prime movers in founding the ICC. It should support it wholeheartedly as the right instrument for Darfur.