Mr. Roth, when asked to comment for this article, said that a Human Rights Watch committee may review Iran's rhetoric, but in his view Tehran isn't inciting genocide and claims to the contrary are "part of an effort to beat the war drums against Iran."
Dancing Around Genocide
At Human Rights Watch, a bitter behind-the-scenes battle over Iran's calls to annihilate Israel.
By DAVID FEITH
Is promoting genocide a human-rights violation? You might think that's an easy question. But it isn't at Human Rights Watch, where a bitter debate is raging over how to describe Iran's calls for the destruction of Israel. The infighting reveals a peculiar standard regarding dictatorships and human rights and especially the Jewish state.
Human Rights Watch is the George Soros-funded operation that has outsize influence in governments, newsrooms and classrooms world-wide. Some at the nonprofit want to denounce Iran's regime for inciting genocide. "Sitting still while Iran claims a 'justification to kill all Jews and annihilate Israel' . . . is a position unworthy of our great organization," Sid Sheinberg, the group's vice chairman, wrote to colleagues in a recent email.
Asked in 2010 about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statement that Israel "must be wiped off the map," Mr. Roth suggested that the Iranian president has been misunderstood. "There was a real question as to whether he actually said that," Mr. Roth told The New Republic, because the Persian language lacks an idiom for wiping off the map. Then again, Mr. Ahmadinejad's own English-language website translated his words that way, and the main alternative translation"eliminated from the pages of history"is no more benign. Nor is Mr. Ahmadinejad an outlier in the regime. Iran's top military officer declared earlier this year that "the Iranian nation is standing for its cause that is the full annihilation of Israel."
Mr. Roth's main claim is legalistic: Iran's rhetoric doesn't qualify as "incitement"which is illegal under the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948but amounts merely to "advocacy," which is legal.
"The theory" to which Human Rights Watch subscribes, he has written in internal emails, "is that in the case of advocacy, however hateful, there is time to dissuadeto rebut speech with speechwhereas in the case of incitement, the action being urged is so imminently connected to the speech in question that there is no time to dissuade. Incitement must be suppressed because it is tantamount to action."
Really? What about the officials, soldiers and scientists behind Iran's nuclear program? Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan was a senior nuclear scientist until his death in a car explosion this year. His widow afterward boasted: "Mostafa's ultimate goal was the annihilation of Israel."
Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group founded by the Tehran regime, is also unabashed about its motivations. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said: "If all the Jews gathered in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide. . . . It is an open war until the elimination of Israel and until the death of the last Jew on earth."
Then there's Hamas, the Tehran-backed Palestinian terror group whose founding charter declares that "Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it."
If building nuclear weapons and deploying Hezbollah and Hamas aren't "action" in Mr. Roth's view, what is? "Incitement to genocide did occur in Rwanda," he has written to colleagues. "Radio Milles Collines identified the locations of Tutsis and directed organized gangs to hunt them down, which they promptly did, in real time."
So if genocidal talk isn't causing genocidal action in "real time," Human Rights Watch must sit on its hands. That approach seems to miss the purpose of both the Genocide Conventionto stop genocide before it happens, not simply litigate it afterwardand of human-rights activism generally. Human Rights Watch says its mission is "strategic, targeted advocacy," but apparently the organization needs to see a genocide in progress before condemning the rhetoric of its perpetrators.
For decades Human Rights Watch has done brave reporting behind the Iron Curtain, in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, communist China and other dark corners. Yet its silence on Iran's genocidal rhetoric fits a pattern toward Israel.
When Hamas started indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israeli towns a decade ago, Human Rights Watch took years to issue a report. From 2000 to 2010, it published about as many reports condemning Israel as criticizing the tyrannies in Syria, Libya and Iran combined. In 2009, the group's top Middle East official went fundraising in Saudi Arabiathat human-rights paragonwhere she spoke proudly of her disputes with "pro-Israel pressure groups."
Mr. Roth, when asked to comment for this article, said that a Human Rights Watch committee may review Iran's rhetoric, but in his view Tehran isn't inciting genocide and claims to the contrary are "part of an effort to beat the war drums against Iran." In other words, Tehran will continue to call for Israel's obliterationand Human Rights Watch will continue to sit back and watch.
Mr. Feith is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.
A version of this article appeared December 4, 2012, on page A19 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Dancing Around Genocide.