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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.

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 1948—but 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 dissuade—to rebut speech with speech—whereas 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." Mr. Roth added in another email: "Many of [Iran’s] statements are certainly reprehensible, but they are not incitement to genocide. No one has acted on them."

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.

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 Convention—to stop genocide before it happens, not simply litigate it afterward—and 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."

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 obliteration—and Human Rights Watch will continue to sit back and watch.