THE FOREIGN ministers of the European Union met Monday to debate the humanitarian crisis in Sudan's western province of Darfur. The ministers noted that Sudan's government has not delivered on its July 3 promise to Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general, to rein in the Arab death squads that it created to murder Darfur's African civilians. They noted that Sudan had also failed to respect calls for a cease-fire from the African Union the following week, as well as the Europeans' own statement on the crisis, dated July 12. But although the Europeans did their best to sound gruff and impatient, they took only limited action. Meanwhile, huddled in refugee camps that lack food and medicine, Darfur's civilians are dying at an estimated rate of 1,000 a day.

The Europeans know that the killings in Darfur probably constitute genocide, as Congress recognized last week, but they shrank from calling it that. They suggested they might increase their support for the African Union's cease-fire monitors in Darfur, but stopped short of calling for a force large enough to protect civilians from the government-backed militia. They declared qualified support for "imminent" sanctions, but assigned responsibility for imposing these to the U.N. Security Council, which is hamstrung by the threat of a Chinese veto. They advertised the aid that they have given, but they failed to note that the U.N. relief appeal is less than 50 percent funded and made no mention of the detailed request for helicopters that the U.N. staff had presented to them the previous week. More than 30,000 people are thought to have died in Darfur already. How many deaths will it take?

The case for European gradualism is two-fold, and it is based on two mistakes. First, the Europeans appear to assume that they cannot act without authorization from the Security Council, even though the resolution that the council may adopt this week falls short of a clear authorization for foreign peacekeepers to protect Darfur's civilians. Europe's position ignores the fact that the Kosovo war, which Europeans regarded as legitimate, took place without a Security Council resolution; that Mr. Annan, who embodies a good part of the United Nations' moral authority, has visited Darfur and urged action; and that the U.N. staff is crying out for relief supplies immediately, regardless of the timing or content of a resolution. Second, the Europeans hope to push Sudan into peace talks with Darfur's small rebel groups, and they believe this requires a moderate approach toward the government. But the humanitarian crisis is so appalling -- at least 300,000 may die, according to an official U.S. estimate -- that peace talks cannot be allowed to delay action.

There are signs that action may be coming. African countries stand ready to send troops, provided that rich countries pay their passage. Over the weekend, Australia's foreign minister declared that his country was also willing to contribute, and Britain's top military commander, Gen. Mike Jackson, said his country could muster 5,000 troops. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell described Gen. Jackson's suggestion as "premature" yesterday, but how long is Darfur supposed to remain patient? Until 100,000 die? Or 200,000? The rich world's governments are free to make that choice.