Traveling in England and France last week, I heard mostly upbeat things about Jimmy Carter's human rights campaign. Intellectuals and government and political people in both places professed a kind of relief and reinvigoration as a result of it, pleasure that an American President was reclaiming the West's sense of mission and purpose.

But far and away the most interesting comments I heard were of those of a 35-year-old Swede named Thomas Hammarberg, who is chairman of the international executive committee of Amnesty International. I had gone to see him at the organization's London headquarters specifically to inquire about the impact of the American rights drive on the work of a group that has been fighting tough and thankless human-rights battles around the world for more than 15 years. Hammarberg's appraisal of both the promise and the peril of the new high-level American interest went straight to the heart of Jimmy Carter's problem. It is that this interest, while beneficial to the cause of human rights in the short run, may end up - inevitably and simply by its nature - "politicizing" what should be an apolitical, humanitarian effort and thus reducing human rights to just another empty superpower slogan.

To understand the relevance of Hammarberg's concern and the sharpness of his analysis, you need first to know that Amnesty International itself makes a near fetish of being apolitical - and rightly so.It is a worldwide organization with around 100,000 members living in about 80 countries. And typically its efforts to free "prisoners of conscience," as it calls them, will be undertaken by groups of members working simultaneously on behalf of dissenters who have run afoul of entirely different systems - e.g., a political prisoner in Eastern Europe, one in South America, one in an African state.

That, in the view of Hammarberg and other Amnesty officials, is the only way in whcih a human-rights organization can maintain the credibility essential to its success. Self-evidently it is no grinding anyone's political or ideological ax: it is merely seeking to impose a certain standard of decency on the conduct of governments. Can an effort, never mind how honest and well intended, mounted by a great world power that is involved in very nearly every political dispute now going on, maintain a similar apolitical purity? Clearly, it cannot. Hammarberg, who welcomes the increased concern for human rights that has come from Carter's espousal of the cause, worries that conceivably the cause itself will become a kind of "political tool." Human rights - in the worst-case scenario - would finally be perceived by people all over the world as little more than one of those cynical superpower battle cries, a "concept without real content," something roughly equivalent to the term "peace" as lovingly embraced by the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II.

That is a long way down the road, if at all. For Hammarberg it is just a tempering worry, not a prospect of certain doom. Still, when you reflect on the renewed American interest in human rights, the possibility of this unhappy prospect's coming to pass seems very real.

There are several reasons why this is so, and one is the therapeutic nature of the rights drive itself. Americans in particular, and other Western nations in general, feel keenly the need to reclaim a sense of moral wholeness and mission that went out the window with the awful ambiguities of the past decade, the revelations, the shocks, the disappointments. This feeling that we had lost our way, misplaced our values and tarnished our honor was something Jimmy Carter - wisely, in my judgment - set about to remedy. The human-rights focus of his administration has been part of that remedy, and its restorative impact on the Western psyche has been widely hailed. President Carter, as a British official expressed it to me, was reminding people that it was not 19th-century economics but certain 18th-century humane values that America represented in the world.

The trouble is that precisely to the extent that our national concern for the fulfillment of human rights is used to bolster sagging American confidence in our own good purposes, it will be "nationalized" and "politicized" in the ways that Amnesty fears. So the domestic-tonic function of the rights efforts runs contrary to the need to keep that effort separate from super-power conflict. Beyond that, there is the problem of the sheer size and capaciousness of the term. Human rights as a rallying cry is a little like "environment" - a catchall so loose and ill-defined that campaigns organized around it are peculiarly susceptible to posturing, pointlessness and blather.

It is true that for serious, committed workers in the field, a variety of (largely unobserved) convenants and conventions among governments define rather elaborately the particular political and civil freedoms we now think of as human rights. But these definitions are hardly common knowledge. Nor, except for the more publicized individual cases of torture and abuse, are most people either aware of or especially sensitive to the brutal facts and figures of various governments' assaults on their citizens. Human rights - that's big enough and broad enough to be for without supposing that you can personally do all that much about it or that individual gestures your might make would, in turn, make any difference.Everyone knows that the Shah of Iran and his secret police are among the worst. Political and journalistic Washington loves to dance the night away at his embassy. Somehow the connection isn't made.

I am suggesting that there are elements in our heightened concern for human rights that provide a kind of built-in impetus toward that empty, cynical result that Hammarberg fears. God knows the record of the U.N. and related international organizations on this subject is - there is no other word - disgusting. They will pass any resolution, but they will not deal with the case of a member state's violation of it.

With 90 governments (by Amnesty's calculation) holding political, racial or religious prisoners, and "dozens" more engaging in torture as a routine matter, it hardly seems surprising that there is not a great international surge to eliminate the offending practices. Nor is it difficult to imagine a day not far off when the rhetoric of human rights may have become utterly drained of meaning, Orwellian in its inversion of truth and - is it not ever thus?- the preferred political language of those most given to abusing their citizens' rights. This, it seems to me, is the risk inherent in Carter's effort. To the extent that it would, if realized, undermine the concrete good works of Amnesty and others, it is a monstrous possibility. I don't think it is an inevitable consequence of what Carter is doing - but I think he needs continually to be on guard against it.