For the second time in seven weeks, the UN has bared its teeth at Sudan for continuing attacks on civilians in Darfur.
Unfortunately, while the new resolution approved on Saturday by the Security Council threatens sanctions, it will probably have as much bite as the last one in ending a conflict that's left up to 50,000 dead and more than 1 million refugees in desperate conditions. The World Health Organization estimates that 6,000 to 10,000 people are dying each month as a result of the conflict and mass displacement.
The 15-nation Council can be commended, however, for at last acting after the US gave notice Sept. 9 that it had found the attacks on black Africans by state-backed Arab militias to be a form of genocide. The notice was the first time that a nation has officially invoked the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
As a result, the resolution calls on Secretary-General Kofi Annan to "rapidly" set up an international commission of inquiry to probe the atrocities in Darfur to determine whether the UN can agree that they are genocide. If so, the Council wants those responsible "held accountable."
The resolution almost didn't pass. Until Mr. Annan strongly endorsed it, China was ready to cast a veto on the claim that a threat of sanctions against the government in Sudan might reverse the positive steps already made by Khartoum. To be sure, Sudan has allowed international aid to flow to the displaced Darfurians, and permitted the 53-nation African Union to send in monitors with protective troops to check on a cease-fire between the government and two rebel groups.
But China's real interest is to block the UN from making good on this resolution's threat to consider penalties on Sudan's oil exports. It has invested heavily in Sudan petroleum, making it the fourth largest supplier for China.
Despite China's special interest, however, the concern about Sudan withdrawing cooperation on aid is a legitimate one, shared by other nations. That leaves the UN with a tough choice: Use threats to stop likely genocide, or back off from those threats to be able to feed refugees.
As a result, the compromise is that the resolution ends up with no deadline for Sudan. This may set a bad precedent of international leniency. After its inaction in Rwanda in 1994, the UN shouldn't repeat its mistake.
The fact that Khartoum has yet to rein in the militias that are attacking civilians, which it unleashed last year to put down a rebellion, may be a sign that it's not fully in control. In that case, humanitarian intervention with African and European troops is justified. A failed state with mass atrocities not only lacks legitimacy, but its sovereignty is eroded as well.