Not long ago Jimmy Carter said that his efforts have made human rights an issue that "no government on earth can ignore." The President ought to take another look at Central America, where dubious elections, new outbreaks of violence, and political repressions have made news in recent weeks.

When the U.S. government last month issued its second annual report on the status of human rights in the 105 countries that receive American aid, the section on Central America was so bland that it might be concluded there had been significant improvement in the region.

Unfortunately, up close, there is little to confirm that impression. Guatemala, for instance, got a comparatively benign rating in the State Department report, but it was hardly out before Amnesty International, the Nobel Prize human rights organization, charged that Guatemalan "death squads," acting with "total impunity before the law" had killed over 20,000 people in recent years.

It traced 112 new killings and abductions in the last few months to political coercion. There was relatively little disorder during the just-concluded presidential "race" here, but that is attibuted to the indifference of disillusioned voters who looked upon the election as a charade.

Only about half of the people bothered to register, and less than half of the registered bothered to vote. Four years ago, an army general gained the presidency by blantant fraud, and this time around the electorate was reduced to choosing between three more military candidates. Such fundamental issues as land reform, political violence and tax relief were barely mentioned in the presidential campaign. Twenty percent of the voters spoiled their ballots to protest the exclusion of a leftist party from the election.

Finally, no candidate having won a majority, the Guatemalan Congress several days ago chose the frontrunner, Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia, as the new president. But who cares? With still another general in power, it will be the mixture as before.

In nearby Nicaragua, according to the State Department report, the human rights situation improved last year, but only a week ago Terence Todman, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, told Congress that since recent political assassinations, conditions in Nicaragua have "deteriorated terribly."

One of those killed was Pedro Chamorro, a highly respected editor whose paper courageously opposed Gen. Anastasio Somoza, the long-time military dictator of Nicaragua. Since then (Jan. 10) there has been virtual civil war, with may casualties, as Somoza's troops forcibly tried to put down strikes, demonstrations and boycotts united by the slogan "Somoza must go!"

Meanwhile, in El Salvador, questionable elections at the local level are being boycotted by all the principal opposition parties on the grounds that the ruling party has rigged the electoral machinery in a way that guarantees it a 90 percent victory.

Despite all that, there are some silver linings. The beleaguered Somoza now swears he will step down after his present term and allow honest elections. Gen. Omar Torrijos, the boss of Panama, intimates he has similar plans. And then there is the good news that democratic Costa Rica has just managed another free election.

The most hopeful sign for the future, however, is the way the Catholic hierarchy in Latin America is assuming the leadership in the crusade for human rights, despite threats, persecution and the murder of priests.

In Nicaragua, the New Year's pastoral message of Archbishop Miguel Obando exploded like a bomb when it openly condemned the government for misdeeds ranging from corruption to murder.

In San Salvador, another archbiship, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, is now leading the human rights cause in a country where other opposition has been silenced by the ruling military clique. The government, he says, "is maintaining an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. People are arrested. People disappear. We've even had complaints of torture from priests."

The Honduran Roman Catholic Church may be the most activist in all of Central American. In the northern region of Olancho several parishes have been closed to protect the lives of the local priests. The situation, the church says, "is no different from that of the church in El Salvador. Here there is also a climate of persecution and violence."

Although the Carter human rights campaign has not yet produced many positive results, the president has inspired friendly popular feeling toward himself. Most Latins think he means well and that impression has been fortified by his efforts to give Panama a fair deal on the canal treaties.

Also, unlike so many of his predecessors, he has not yet invaded, overthrown, or secretly subverted any of our Lain American neightbors. It's a nice change.