CRY OF THE OPPRESSED The History and Hope of the Human Rights Revolution By Robert F. Drinan Harper & Row. 224 pp. $17.95

FEW AMERICANS have been so closely involved in the domestic and international human rights movements as Robert Drinan. From Amnesty International, to Helsinki Watch, missions to Latin America and to South Africa, he has played a positive role in most major rights organizations and campaigns during the last two decades. As a Roman Catholic priest, a former U.S. congressman and a law professor, he has had the opportunity to influence and observe the movement from a number of key perspectives.

Unlike many of those who were active during the Carter administration heyday of human rights policy, Drinan has retained his optimism and activism. Far from political obsolescence, he says, human rights today is "a new gospel" that has "entered the consciousness of humankind and has become one of the great driving forces of the modern world."

The basis for this assertion, as outlined in Cry of the Oppressed, is the body of law promulgated since World War II making it a crime for governments to violate universally agreed-on human rights. Drinan acknowledges at the outset that the United Nations convenants, regional agreements and national statutes mandating these protections are not universally observed. The United States, which was largely responsible for drawing up the U.N. codes in the first place, has not even ratified most of them.

But, he says cheerfully, slavery was not abolished in a day. First come the laws. Under the inexorable weight of human resolve, observance must some day follow.

Drinan may be right about the future. Sadly, however, his book is unlikely to speed the process. Repetitive and at times confusing in structure, it often reads as though it were an exact transcription of lectures on human rights law delivered to his students at Georgetown University. The transition from the spoken to the written word could have been done by a good pencil editor.

More substantively, Drinan's evangelical treatment of the human rights gospel is less comprehensive history than a selective, liberal-eye-view of the human-rights good guys and bad guys.

I find little to disagree with among his conclusions on U.S. performance -- that the Reagan administration trampled over many of the gains made by its predecessor in identifying America with respect for human rights. But the paths Drinan travels to reach that conclusion and others are potholed with apologies and contradictions.

Carter, Drinan notes, imposed Congressionally mandated human rights restrictions on U.S. aid against only eight countries -- all of them in Latin America -- and ignored similar violations elsewhere. Drinan is forgiving, however, since such selective enforcement "presumably" was due by "extraordinary circumstances" and geopolitical concerns. Among them, he sympathetically lists such dubious strategic necessities as Zairean cobalt and Indonesian oil, as well as Iran's "sharing a long border with the Soviet Union," and the overall "strategic importance" of U.S. military installations in South Korea and the Philippines.

BUT ONLY a few pages later, Drinan castigates the Reagan administration for adopting the same selective standards, based on its own sense of geopolitical imperatives, in its reluctance to criticize human rights abuses in a place like Turkey. In 1984, he notes with clear disapproval, the administration "sought to minimize political imprisonments and tortures in Turkey by emphasizing instead Turkey's geopolitical position -- its shared border with the U.S.S.R."

Inexplicably, for Drinan generally is not an apologist for wrong on any side, it is in the case of the Soviet Union that he offers his only other mitigating explanation for rights abuses. After a long section outlining rights violations in the East Bloc, he explains that "the U.S.S.R. cannot be portrayed as singularly monstrous; the United States has much to answer for in its action on Vietnam and now, through proxies and surrogates, in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The cruelty indulged in by the Soviets must also be seen in light of all the paranoia they have felt for many decades. They feel surrounded by enemies . . ."

So, undoubtedly, does South Africa, for which Drinan rightfully allows no such excuses.

Regardless of political persuasion, what is one to make of the sweeping assertion that human rights enforcement "is everywhere the principal aspiration of dissidents and insurgents"? Including both the Nicaraguan contras and Salvadoran guerrillas? The Renamo insurgents in Mozambique? Basque separatists in Spain?

Or this, on the often competing demands for political and economic rights: "What the Third World perceives to be the insincerity or hypocrisy of the rich nations clearly diminishes the desire of the underdeveloped nations to emphasize and enforce political rights when their economic rights are so neglected." Does Drinan seriously mean to allow repressive governments like those of Ethiopia or Zaire, Haiti or Vietnam the excuse of poverty-induced pique?

There is much of genuine interest here -- an explanation of how the European Court on Human Rights, despite its narrow mandate, has become an effective forum for rights litigation; a look at how non-governmental human rights organizations have become respected pressure groups; a discussion of the Helsinki Accords.

But there is also much to make even the most hopeful supporters of universally respected human rights cringe.

Karen DeYoung, former Latin American correspondent of The Washington Post, now reports from the paper's London bureau.