The State Department said yesterday that, despite heightened world awareness of human rights during 1978, repression and abuse of individual liberties still existed in many countries, including such longtime U.S. friends as South Korea, the Philippines, Israel and Mexico.
The department's annual report to Congress on human rights in 115 countries receiving U.S. aid had attracted unusually heavy advance attention this year -- chiefly because of a Washington Post article abou Israel published last Wednesday.
The controversial Post report, which drew strong denials from Israel, quoted cables from a former State Department officer in Jerusalem saying that Israeli authorities may have systematically mistreated Palestinians in interrogation centers on the occupied West Bank.
In addition, human-rights problems have played a big role in a number of major foreign policy issues now confronting the United States. For example, former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger recently charged that the Carter administraation's heavy emphasis on human rights may have helped to trigger the current political turmoil in Iran.
Allegations of widespread rights abuses in Nicaragua were an important factor in President Carter's decision last week to cut back U.S. aid and diplomatic ties with thar Central American country. There also is a possibility that the State Department survey's comments on Mexico could cause frictions when Carter makes a state visit there Wednesday.
The survey's report on Israel is relatively mild, compared with the human-rights records of many other countries, including one of Israel's principal Arab foes, Syria.
The report on Syria noted that, while the government has promised greater respect for individual rights, there are persistent "credible" reports of physical coercion of prisoners and political foes of the regime.
The report described Israel as a "full-fledged parliamentary democracy with extremely high standards of justice and human rights."
But, in its section on the occupied territories, the report says, in part, "Allegations about the routine use of torture, including psychological and physical pressures and instances of brutality by Israeli officials during interrogation of Arab security suspects, have been widely publicized... The accumulation of reports, some from credible sources, make it appear that instances of mistreatment have occurred."
It then notes the assurances of Israeli officials "that such practices are forbidden by Israeli law and that any violators are punished." Following publication of The Washington Post article, State Department officials said that use of the term "in instances of mistreatment" was not intended to suggest that Israel pursues a systematic, officially or unofficially condoned policy of mistreatment.
The human rights survey, which has been required by Congress since 1976, is compiled from U.S. embassy reports and the assessments of private rights organizations, such as Amnesty International.
Since its purpose is to allow Congress to take rights factors into account when allocating foreign aid, several countries that have figured prominently in rights controversies -- the Soviet Union, China, Chile, South Africa, Uganda -- are not described because they receive no U.S. assistance.
For the first time, the 1978 report attempts to assess the Global state of human rights, and concludes that the Carter administration, through its priority emphasis on the subject, can take some credit for increasing world awareness of rights questions and helping to bring about improvements in several Third World countries.
Among those countries cited as having made progress toward democracy, following direct or indirect military control, or having released significant numbers of political prisoners, are the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Ecuador, Ghana, Nigeria, Peru, Thailand Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal and Paraguay.
But it also note setbacks in several nations cited in the 1977 report as having shown encouraging signs of progress. Of these, perhaps the most significant is the report on Iran, completed before civil strife there forced Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to leave the country.
During the months leading up to the upheavals in Iran, the report said, the shah's regime "contributed to an atmosphere of confrontation and conflict" through use of extreme violence, arbitrary arrests and restrictions on civil and political liberties.
"In addition," the Iran report said, "credibic charges continued that torture was still being used in interrogations in police stations, especially outside Tehran."
The survey also was very critical of two other countries, the Philippines and South Korea, whose strategic importance to the United States has caused them to win large amounts of American aid despite allegations of widespread rights violations.
Of the Philippines, the report said, "There have continued to be credible reports of torture in 1978 as well as of the involvement of military units in abductions and murders of dissidents." It also noted "credible reports" of widespread vote fraud, improper government influence and corruption.
The report on South Korea concluded: "The department continues to view the restrictions on the peaceful expression of dissent and other controls in Korea as excessive in relation to the threat under which the nation lives, and as contrary to international human rights standards."
The Nicaragua report cites "credible reports of torture" by members of President Anastasio Somoza's National Guard, with "no known instance of the government's bringing charges against those accused of such treatment."
One of the harhest reports deals with another Central American country, El Salvador. The report cites electoral fraud, growing terrorism and "several apparently credible reports" that government security forces systematically use torture immune from public investigations.
A potentially very sensitive report in the 1978 survey involves Mexico, in part because it comes on the eve of Carter's visit there and in part because past rights reports have skirted gingerly around charges of abuse against the Mexican government.
Mexico is a democracy which contends that it affords full protection for human rights and which in the past has vocally criticized alleged rights abuses in other countries. That Mexico's own record is generally good is acknowledged in this year's report, but it also adds:
"There have been some cases of physical and psychological abuse by the police. There are allegarions that suspected terrorists have occasionally been killed instead of being brought to trial."