The only nations that consistently employ torture, suppress dissidents and imprison political foes are Israel, South Africa and Chile.

The tens of thousands beaten, starved, jailed and murdered for their politics in Iran, the Soviet Union and Indonesia - to cite a few of the more notorious - simply do not exist.

This is the bizarre view expressed by the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, a body of 32 nations with a democratic minority.

Here in Geneva, the Commission has what amounts to a secretariat of civil servants, the U.N. Human Rights members deplore what they refard as a perversion of the very task they are called on to perform.

These international civil servants have largely suffered in silence, however, or simply enjoyed their comfortable salaries and benefits. Their silence is due in part to the division's leadership - at least until now - and in part to the fact of U.N. life makes them instruments of U.N. power politics.

Indeed, the performance of the U.N. human rights apparatus is so grotesque that the professionals themselves seriously discuss whether they serve repression rather than the dignity of man. When only the pariah three are condemned regularly and religiously, others lke Uganda, Burundi and Brazil - to cite some other governments that have been accused of terror or genocide - are given an inferential certificate of good conduct.

The new director of the division since May is a shrewd Dutch lawyer who is candid enough to voice doubts about his task. In his cramped office at the Palais des Nations here, Theo van Boven said:

"We might not be successful about it. It's a matter of great concern. But I do believe that where we do take actions, that is important in itself. For example, a Chilean prisoner for three years tells us we are great source of support."

"I may come to the conclusion that I can't function in this organization, that I can function better outside," said Van Boven, who held a human rights chair at the University of Amsterdam. "But I think it's worth the effort," at least for the two years of his contract.

The human rights bureaucracy here owes its existence to the eloquent Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. Like the Soviet constitution, it is full of splendid phrases and guarantees. It asserts that everyone "has the right to life, liberty and security of person." It denounces slavery, torture, arbitrary arrest. It calls for equality before the law, free movement within and without nations, free speech, free religion and the right to dignified employment.

A tortured Indian Naga, a jobless American Black or a beaten IRA suspect in Ulster cannot count on the U.N. appartus for much help - no more than most citizens of Czechoslovakia, Argentina or the Central African Republic, where the systematic denial of human rights is relied upon to keep ruling governments in power.

Victims can join the hundreds who daily send complaints to Geneva. Once a year, representatives from the United States, France, the Soviet Union and a Latin American and an African nation glance at summaries of a sample of these complaints.

When this five-nation working group thinks it has uncovered a consistent pattern of violations by one country, that nation's conduct is discussed in secret sessions of the Sub-commission of the U.N. Human Rights Division.

As Van Boven emphasises, the Sub-commission is the only breath of fresh, nongovernmental air in the hierarchy. Its 26 representatives are not supposed to represent governments but are supposed to be independent experts. A handful really are. Britain, for example, has been sending Ben Whitaker, a civil libertarian who directs the Minority Rights group here. Whitaker has been so independent that it is not clear whether he will be allowed to return.

The Subcommission, with its handful of nonbureaucrats can only make recommendations to the full Commission where 32 government representatives sit and serve, and where little more happens to complaints involving the Third World-Soviet bloc.

Only nine of the 32 are recognizable democracies. At least 15 are totalitarian.

The other eight are Third World nations among whom the Soviets can always find at least a couple for a majority to protect Idi Amin and others from censure.

After more than a generation of existence, the commission currently denounces and monitors only Israel, Chile and South Africa. When Portugal ran colonies in Africa, it too was condemned. Now that Angola and Mozambique are independent, human rights violations have mircaulously disappeared - at least in the commission's eyes.

As one professional in the Human Rights division here puts it, "There's a high frustration level."

Until Van Boven took over, the division could even be accused of having been a coconspirator with the Soviet-Third World bloc. It was run in recent years by Marc Shreiber, a Belgian, who spent most of his working life at the United Nation. At one time, he even made a deal with the subcommission under which no country names would be mentioned, according to a high division aide here.

Last year, Whitaker and the U.S. delegate, Beverly Carter, the ambassador to Liberia, forced the Subcommission to write an accurate account of their meeting. Schreiber's staff had altered the record to omit the group's suggestion that the Soviet Union and East Germany were "gross violators of human rights." Even so, there is no chance that the full commission of 32 will act on this novel idea.

Van Boven is vastly different from Schreiber, although he scrupulously refuses to discuss his predecessor's record. On his first day here, Van Boven summoned his staff and read them Article 100 of the UN Charter, which prohibits the civil servants from serving any particular government. Aides down the line say his message has gotten across.

If Van Boven's contract is not renewed, he can look forward to resuming his twin careers as a Dutch diplomat and professor of law.

How much can even a tough and dedicated man in the Palais do against the combined Soviet-Third World weight?

"I hink the subcommission record is good," he replies. "There is a continuing need for it."

Not surprisingly, after last year's episode, Soviet personalities began suggesting the abolition of the subcommission with its nongovernmental representatives. This appears to be token effort, and Van Boven does not believe a serious attempt will be made to drop it.

He knows that the U.N. human rights apparatus has a poor reputation among civil libertarians, but he blames this in part on the "ill-feeling toward the U.N. at large" in the West doesn't have a majority anymore."

He is troubled by the fact that the standing of the Human Rights Commission is so low that its indictments carry little force, even when they are justified. He noted that the United Nations condemned colonial Portugal's massacres in Mozambique, but that the West ignored them until a Jesuit priest brought an account to the Times to London.

Van Boven and his aides insist that much of their good work goes on quietly behind the scenes. They claim that they have, for example, released some political prisoners from jail or enabled some would-be emigres to leave their country by privately bringing complaints to the governments concerned.

Nevertheless, as one aide put it, "We're like a vaccuum cleaner salesman who calls at 10 doors and makes one sale. It's a lousy record."