It can bring no solace for the people of Grozny as they count their dead from indiscriminate Russian missile and artillery attacks. But their suffering does not go unmeasured. The savage assault on Chechnya brings home the need for a new international consensus U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is trying to forge.

Three times in the past seven months a national government has gone to war against its own population, etching in blood its sovereign "right" to kill as many of its own masses as it sees fit. Serbia and Indonesia were halted in their crimes by international outrage and reaction. Kosovo and East Timor were detached from their control and taken over by the United Nations. A doctrine of humanitarian intervention seemed to sink roots.

But Chechnya shows that it is still two steps forward and one back: Russia inflicts a rain of death on a defenseless regional capital without important foreign constraint or meaningful criticism.

European and U.S. official reaction makes Chechnya sound as if it were a Third World train wreck: The loss of life is "tragic" or "regrettable," but not something to be acted upon. (The exception is Germany, where Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer voices genuine outrage.) Russia is likely in the short term to conclude that sovereign murder still pays.

But in a 90-minute discussion earlier this week, Annan made clear to me that he cannot ignore bloodletting even on the territory of a Security Council permanent member. He has dispatched an envoy to Moscow to push for a visit to Chechnya by a special U.N. team. The team would examine the need for humanitarian aid and, Annan added, "be the eyes and ears of the international community."

Most of his predecessors would likely have avoided saying or doing anything in this case. But the cascade of intrastate atrocity in Rwanda, Kosovo, East Timor and elsewhere has made Annan a man with a mission. He began to spell it out in a startling speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 20 and defined it more fully in our conversation.

States now have to respect "individual sovereignty--the human rights and fundamental freedoms of each and every individual as enshrined in the U.N. Charter" as well as state sovereignty, Annan told the General Assembly. Nothing in the charter precludes "rights beyond borders."

Annan told me he set out to challenge "the old consensus," which is rooted in the Treaty of Westphalia and the United Nations' own once unshakable acceptance of the doctrine of noninterference in the "internal" affairs of member states. He smiled when I asked if that made anybody nervous.

"Yes. For example, China was nervous, India was nervous and Russia was very nervous. . . . The Russians have been consumed by Chechnya for a long time. I think they feared Kosovo would be seen as a precedent for Chechnya and other regions in the Caucasus. Before, this concern was theoretical. Now . . . " His voice trailed off, leaving the obvious unsaid.

Russia of course is nothing like Serbia or Indonesia in power terms. Russia possesses nuclear arms, a Security Council veto and a government that has mostly cooperated with the United States and Europe on crucial questions in this decade. There is no risk of the NATO cavalry's riding to Chechnya's rescue or Bill Clinton's calling Boris Yeltsin a Hitler.

But Russia is pursuing scorched-earth tactics that do resemble the Serbian and Indonesian treatment of their subject peoples. Annan is not willing to let Realpolitik hand out free passes on humanitarian intervention.

"Today what is internal doesn't remain internal for very long," he told me. "We have to examine our willingness to act in some areas of conflict while limiting ourselves to humanitarian palliatives in other crises that ought to shame us into action. We have to find rational guidelines or an understanding of the spectrum on which the choices of intervention exist. We need a new consensus."

This elegant but steely Ghanaian diplomat, in his third year as secretary general, has ordered a staff report on intervention. He stimulated a General Assembly study group on the same subject and hopes to get the Security Council deeply involved in his six- to 12-month effort to, in effect, modernize sovereignty.

"The founders of the United Nations in 1945 came out of a world war determined to stop conflicts between states. The time has come for our generation to look at its responsibilities toward civilians who in today's wars are deliberately targeted."

Annan did not add the words "by their own governments." But he did not have to. The shells falling in Chechnya made the point for him.