LONDON – The death toll in Darfur (search) has been underestimated and is likely to be near 300,000, British lawmakers said Wednesday, calling the international response to the human tragedy "scandalously ineffective."
At the United Nations, France delayed a vote on a resolution that would authorize the prosecution of Sudanese war crimes suspects by the International Criminal Court (search) in hopes of averting a U.S. veto.
Hours later, the United States reversed course and dropped its objections to use of the court, administration officials said. The government had preferred that an African court try cases but agreed to a compromise amid assurances Americans wouldn't be subject to such prosecutions.
While British members of Parliament dramatically raised the estimated death toll, an official in Prime Minister Tony Blair's government said it remains unknown. The Blair government said Britain and other nations are doing all they can to support the African Union (search), which has 3,000 soldiers and cease-fire monitors in Sudan's western region.
"The honest truth" is that nobody knows the real death toll in the more than two-year conflict, Hilary Benn, the government's international development secretary, said on Channel 4 television.
Conflict has engulfed Darfur since February 2003, when two non-Arab rebel groups took up arms against the Arab-dominated government to win more political and economic rights for the region's African tribes.
Sudan's Arab government is accused of responding by backing Janjaweed militiamen who have carried out rapes and killings against Sudanese of African origin. The government denies backing the Janjaweed.
Earlier this month, the United Nations estimated that since October 2003, about 180,000 people had died as a result of the upheaval, with about 2 million people displaced.
U.N. officials said that while the March estimate included some deaths due to violence, most were because of disease and starvation.
The 15 Security Council nations have been deadlocked for weeks on the issue of holding people accountable in Sudan, and the court's supporters are now demanding a vote on the French resolution.
The French draft introduced last week would refer Darfur cases since July 1, 2002 to the International Criminal Court. That was the recommendation of a U.N. panel that had found crimes against humanity — but not genocide — occurred in the vast western region. Washington has called it genocide.
France's demand for ICC prosecutions had posed a dilemma for the United States: Washington wants the perpetrators of atrocities in Sudan's western Darfur region brought to justice but it has vehemently opposed the International Criminal Court on grounds that Americans could face politically motivated or frivolous prosecutions.
In return for its concession, the United States received assurances that Americans deployed in Sudan, in whatever capacity, would not be subject to ICC prosecutions, administration officials told The Associated Press. They asked not to be identified because the decision has not been officially announced.
The administration agreed to a compromise after concluding that opposition to the U.S. stand was too strong, particularly among Europeans, who have been united in support of the Rome-based ICC as the trial venue.
In Britain's House of Commons, a report by the International Development said a World Health Organization estimate that 70,000 people had died from indirect effects of disease and hunger in the Darfur region was "a gross underestimate."
The report, finished before the United Nations released its revised estimate of 180,000, said the total number of dead is likely to be "somewhere around 300,000."
The document accused the international community of a "scandalously ineffective response" to the situation in Darfur and said governments across the world were guilty of failing to deal with the crisis.
The report said early warnings about the emerging crisis were ignored, humanitarian agencies were slow to respond and the United Nations suffered from an "avoidable leadership vacuum" in Sudan at a critical time.
It also criticized the U.N. Security Council as "divided, weak and ineffective," saying it had been driven by member states' interests in oil and exporting arms.
"One of the tragedies about Darfur is that for the whole of the early part of this disaster the international community seemed to turn its eyes away," committee chairman Tony Baldry told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.
The report also recommended referring the Darfur crisis to the International Criminal Court and introducing targeted sanctions and an extension of the arms embargo to cover the Sudanese government.
On Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council voted to strengthen its arms embargo on Darfur to include the government and ordered an asset freeze and travel ban on those who defy peace efforts in the conflict-wracked area.
The Sudanese government on Wednesday criticized that action, saying the new resolution would undermine peace efforts in the area.
The resolution "will also create insecurity in Darfur as it imposes restrictions on the movement of the army and its logistics ... at a time (when) it is expected to provide security and fight rebels, outlaws, and the Janjaweed" militia, Sudan's foreign minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail, said in Khartoum.