At the sixtieth-anniversary summit of the general assembly of the United Nations in September 2005, the world's leaders endorsed an international "responsibility to protect": an obligation to act to protect civilians in the face of war crimes or genocide, where the government locally was perpetrating these abuses itself or was unable or unwilling to stop them.
The continuing crisis in the Darfur region of western Sudan - and the woefully inadequate international response to it - makes a mockery of this commitment. While there is much talk about Darfur in the corridors of the UN and amongst international diplomats, this is yet to translate into concrete action. The world community continues to prevaricate while Darfur burns.
Since 2003, more than 200,000 people have been killed in the area and over 2 million displaced. While several of the various rebel groups have committed very serious human-rights abuses, and shown little interest in resolving this conflict diplomatically, primary responsibility for this human tragedy rests with the Sudanese government and the government-backed janjaweed militia.
But if the humanitarian situation over the last three years has been unspeakably bad, it looks set to get even worse. In July-August 2006 alone, UN humanitarian workers report that a further 50,000 people were displaced and 200 women raped. There are also regular attacks on aid workers - twelve have been killed in the last three months.
On 28 August, the UN's humanitarian chief Jan Egeland warned that "a man-made catastrophe of an unprecedented scale" loomed within weeks in Darfur unless the UN Security Council acted immediately. These calls were echoed by Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for human rights, and by the UN secretary-general Kofi Annan himself.
David Mepham is head of the international programme at the Institute of Public Policy Research (ippr). His most recent report is Changing States a progressive agenda for political reform in the Middle East (January 2006)
Also by David Mepham in openDemocracy:
"David Held's missing links" (June 2004)
"Accountability in Africa: whose problem?" (February 2005)
"A mixed-bag summit" (September 2005)
"Hamas and political reform in the middle east" (February 2006)
"The next United Nations leader: a time for transparency"
(30 August 2006)
The road to hell
Two related factors have brought the region to the edge of a new abyss. The first is the imminent departure of the African Union Mission in Sudan (Amis). Over the last two years, its valiant efforts have brought some limited relief from the worst excesses of this vicious war - but little more than that. With only 7,000 troops, poorly equipped and lacking a credible mandate, Amis has failed to provide effective civilian protection to the people of Darfur. Now, facing a financial crisis and having alienated Khartoum, it will leave Sudan by the end of September, creating a security vacuum that Khartoum is only too eager to fill.
The second factor has been the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA), signed in Nigeria on 5 May 2006. While it was hoped that this would lead to the cessation of hostilities and the creation of a lasting peace, it has instead produced divisions and armed clashes between various rebel groups, the emergence of new groups (the Group of Nineteen and the National Redemption Front), and violence between these groups and government forces. The Khartoum government's response has been a major military mobilisation in an apparent attempt to resolve this issue once and for all. If, as looks likely, the violence escalates, the international aid agencies will pull out, cutting an essential lifeline for hundreds of thousands of Darfurians and possibly triggering another flood of refugees into neighbouring Chad.
Three years too late, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1706 on 31 August 2006), assigning a 20,000-strong UN peacekeeping force to replace the AU mission. However, no one in New York or in key international capitals seems prepared to deploy UN forces without Khartoum's consent - and Sudan shows no interest in giving it. One suggestion at the UN, prompted by concern that the AU force would withdraw with no force to replace it, is to encourage the AU mission to stay on a bit longer. But in its current form this would be of little benefit.
There are no easy options left, but that is categorically not to say that nothing can be done. The 11 September meeting of the UN Security Council may prove to be the last real international opportunity to act to prevent further catastrophe. The council needs to apply massive pressure on Khartoum - diplomatic, political, legal and economic - to accept a UN force in Darfur. In 1999, international pressure of this kind compelled an equally recalcitrant Jakarta to accept foreign peacekeepers into the then occupied territory of East Timor. But maximising that international pressure requires help from China, Russia and the Arab states - countries that have previously blocked more decisive international action.
Russia and China abstained in the Security Council vote authorising the UN force, but they said that this was a question of timing rather than substance. There is room for movement here. The role of China is particularly crucial given the country's huge stake in the Sudanese oil industry. When Chinese premier Wen Jiabao meets Tony Blair on 13 September during his visit to London, Darfur should be the number-one item on the British prime minister's agenda.
Also in openDemocracy about Darfur:
Stephen Ellis, "Darfur: countdown to catastrophe"
(10 June 2004)
Lyndall Stein, "Darfur journal"
(18 November 2004)
Suliman Baldo, "Darfur's peace plan: the view from the ground"
(24 May 2006)
Alex de Waal, "Darfur's fragile peace"
(5 July 2006)
17 September 2006 has been designated a Global Day for Darfur. For details, click here
Never again ... again
There is a major onus on Africans, too. The African Union's peace and security council is also preparing to meet in New York to discuss the crisis. While the constitutive act of the African Union recognises a right of intervention when war crimes are being committed, most African states are still reluctant to put real pressure on Khartoum. But African states have the most to lose if the Darfur crisis deteriorates still further - and the most to gain if the AU can demonstrate a greater willingness to condemn gross human-rights abuses and to hold the offending governments to account.
The AU should also press for resumed negotiations on a comprehensive political settlement acceptable to all parties. The DPA has clearly failed, but that is an argument for re-energising political and peace negotiations, not abandoning them.
Finally, UN preparations should begin immediately to muster a rapid military-reaction force capable of providing civilian protection. To deploy military forces without Khartoum's consent involves enormous risk. It is manifestly better to avoid a non-consensual deployment of troops. But can this option really be excluded altogether or Khartoum given a veto over international intervention? If the last-minute diplomatic initiatives fail, some form of robust military deployment may be required to prevent still greater loss of civilian life.
Without decisive international action, things are set to get even worse for the long-suffering people of Darfur. After the Rwanda genocide of 1994 and in the UN declaration of 2005, the world's leaders said "never again". Did they really mean it?