Indian human rights, long the unwanted stepchild of American politics, have overnight turned into the Reagan administration's much-courted Cinderella. Expressing concern over the forced relocation of at least 8,500 Miskito Indians in Nicaragua, U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick recently testified on Capitol Hill that the Sandinistas' Indian policy was the most massive violation of human rights in Central America today. Secretary of State Alexander Haig accused the Nicaraguan government of "atrocious genocidal actions" by showing photos of atrocities that, it was later discovered, were committed under the Somoza regime. President Reagan himself deplored the Miskito relocation in a major address.

From an administration that does not oppose legislation that would deny Indian tribes at home even the right to continue so-far successful land claims litigation in federal courts, this new- found fondness for Indian human rights is surprising news. It is also at odds with the administration's discreet silence on the massive attack on human rights and the very existence of Indian peoples in Chile, Paraguay, Brazil and Guatemala. Presumably, Ambassador Kirkpatrick's astute distinction between rights violations committed by totalitarian powers and those of merely authoritarian regimes provides the explanation. It is a distinction of small comfort, however, to Indian peoples.

Equally disturbing is the news that the Nicaraguan government defends its systematic and brutal assault on the Miskitos on the ground that the Indians are being used as a fifth column for CIA covert operations against the Sandinistas. The isolation of the northeast coast, it is argued, makes Miskito territory an inviting beachhead for counterrevolutionary American and Somozista attacks. Lest this geopolitical defense for the forced relocation and the burning of Miskito villages impugn the revolutionary government's solicitude for human rights, the Nicaraguan government and its supporters hasten to add that the Indians are being moved at gunpoint for their own protection as well as that of the "Revolution."

Although the stark facts about the systematic destruction of Miskito economy and culture are not disputed, the current debate over the Indians' fate does not center on their right to stay on their land, to determine their own future, or to exist and survive as a distinct people. Instead the debate focuses on whether the CIA is planning covert action, whether it is recruiting Indian mercenaries or whether the killing of 20 or 60 revolutionary soldiers justifies the massive Indian removal.

From a human rights perspective, that kind of question misses the point. It is a line of argument in which being a victim of CIA abuse and manipulation entitles the Miskitos to further and more drastic abuse by the Sandinistas. It is an argument that premises Miskito survival on the readiness of Washington to refrain from sacrificing them in a global power play. It is an unconscionable and cynical argument.

Behind their protestations of concern for the Indians' welfare, the actual policies of both the U.S. and the Nicaraguan governments show their fundamental disregard for the human rights of the Miskito people. An American government, which decries Sandinista attacks on the Miskito, is at the same time using the Indians as pawns in keeping the world safe for democracy and free enterprise--knowing full well the retaliation and suffering their covert or overt action will inflict on the Indians. The Sandinistas, on the other hand, are using U.S. covert operations and military threats from Honduras as a pretext for a governmental policy of forced assimilation planned long before the current military problems arose. A just-released Sandinistas. n t report leaves no doubt that relocation is not a temporary emergency measure but a well- planned Indian resettlement policy, undertaken "for the development of the Atlantic coast" and for "improving and dignifying the living conditions of the Miskitos." To this end, each Indian family removed from its communally owned and cultivated homeland will be given a 250-square-meter "familiar" piece of private property.

It is urgent that organizations committed to human rights intervene through negotiations and physical presence to prevent the destruction of yet another indigenous people. The Miskitos' right of self-determination must be respected. Genuine self-determination should assure the Sandinistas that the U.S. advances will be resisted just as stubbornly as have been those of other colonizers for centuries. International protection of the Miskitos from CIA subversion should also be a welcome relief to Kirkpatrick--if she is really worried about Indian human rights.