As the rainy season brings worsening conditions to Darfur, the area of western Sudan already synonymous with violence and starvation, and the fragile peace process in the south teeters on the brink of collapse, the international response has fallen into disarray.

London, Washington and Brussels, desperate to avoid a repeat of the disastrous events in Rwanda 10 years ago, in which 800,000 people were murdered, are locked in debate as to how best to tackle the crisis. But violence continues unabated, and susceptibility to hunger and disease is multiplying by the day as the rains further hamper the already-difficult provision of humanitarian aid. Current estimates put the death toll as high as 50,000, with another 350,000 believed to be immediately at risk. A million Darfur inhabitants are said to have been displaced.

Despite government promises given to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 3 July to disband the Janjaweed Arab militia, there is little evidence that any such action has taken place. African Union (AU) member states have promised to send 300 troops to Darfur by the end of the month, but this is yet to bear fruit. And Khartoum’s commitment to reimpose the rule of law in the region has been undermined by stories that police uniforms are being sent to militia members.

The Western response has so far been limited. EU foreign affairs ministers met on 26 July to debate the humanitarian crisis, but went no further than to declare their qualified support for ‘imminent’ sanctions, assigning responsibility for their imposition to the UN Security Council.

Despite Annan’s concerted attempts to apply diplomatic pressure, the UN is equally hamstrung. It has received less than half of the $349 million in aid it requested in March, with Annan making further appeals to national leaders in Europe, Asia and the Gulf at the end of July. The US, which has labelled the Darfur killings as genocide, is drafting a UN resolution that will threaten Sudan with sanctions unless it reins in the Arab militias within 30 days. But the resolution, which the US hopes will be voted on in the Security Council by the end of July, faces the threat of a veto from China, which sees it as a violation of Sudan’s national sovereignty. Pressure from Russia, Pakistan, Algeria, Angola, the Philippines and Brazil – all currently Security Council members – may still mean that the Khartoum government is given more time to tackle the Janjaweed before action is taken.

Any response from the international community is fraught with difficulties. The logistical problems of sending forces into a tribal war zone the size of France are obvious. And with international sensitivity still apparent over from the involvement of the US and the UK in Iraq, there is a reluctance to send large numbers of troops, especially to another oil-producing state.

The problems are exacerbated by the steadfastness with which Sudan’s government is refusing Western military involvement. Even the UK’s proposal to protect refugee camps from Janjaweed incursions received a hostile response from Khartoum. Development Minister Hilary Benn has now outlined a plan which involves securing aid financing, providing humanitarian relief, applying pressure on Sudan to assure the safety of its western population and reaching a political settlement.

This plan, though apparently modest, is still a challenge. But, with a large deployment of troops seemingly out of the question, the final solution, when it takes shape, is most likely to be of limited proportions. The imposition of sanctions and the deployment of a small force to secure humanitarian aid routes are still genuine possibilities, but whatever decision is taken, it is clear that the time for action has come.