THOSE ANNUAL REPORTS on human rights abroad have become in some respects a hindrance to the pursuit of policy -- including policy aimed at enlarging and reinforcing the human rights of various people around the world. The volume drops with a klonk at a prescribed time of year, no matter what may be going on simultaneously. These reports were originally ordered up by Congress, out of a conviction that Henry Kissinger was making American diplomacy excessively amoral. Now, though Mr. Kissinger is no longer on the scene and though Jimmy Carter is visibly backing away from his own glib early moralism, the reports are still compelled by law. They now are required to be made on all members of the United Nations, not just on recipients of American aid. This means that such notable offenders as the Soviet Union and Cambodia are being written up. But it also means that countries whose human rights records are neither suspect nor of consuming American interest, such as Denmark and Fiji, are surveyed. Isn't that absurd?

That's just the beginning. In the past three years, the foreign policy bureaucracy has absorbed a great deal of information about internal realities in dozens of foreign countries. We hardly need to know that in 1978 three Ecuadoreans arrested for excavation of pre-Colombian artifacts were severely mistreated while in police custody. But much of the documentation offered about countries with which the United States has difficult relations -- such as the Philippines, Pakistan and Argentina, is well researched and is vital to informed judgement. It goes not just to questions of the ethics and conduct of local governments, but also to eminently practical consideration of their stability, popular support and strength.

But publication of this information by the U.S. government has costs. It is not simply that regimes treated critically get angry. It is that, as in all public policy questions, choices have to be made and some objectives pursued at the expense of others. There is, for instance, a very solid human rights justification for bringing pressure on the Soviets just now to back off conduct at home, in Southwest Asia and in Indochina that causes immense suffering and systematic violation of human rights. Part of that pressure is the grain embargo, which cannot succeed without Argentina's help. Is this not, therefore, a bad moment to be publicly taking the Argentines to task for their human rights failures? In addition, and with reason, a great many countries, even those not much criticized, find the reports unbearably self-righteous and patronizing, evidence of a lack of rational self-interest and a sense of proportion alike.

If Congress were starting from scratch right now, it would probably not decide to make the State Department file these reports. It would properly feel that a reporting requirement introduces an unnecessary and harmful element of rigidity into policy-making, and that the executive branch ought to take account of human rights in a normal and flexible way, just as it takes account of any number of other considerations on which no reporting requirement exists.

Yet the law does exist. Though the reports are flawed, the filing requirement does help ensure attention to a practical subject -- the degree to which local regies hold themselves open to peaceable redress of citizen grievances. To wipe the law off the books would send an unacceptable signal of abandonment of a major American cause. To tailor the reports to political exigencies would merely trade one set of embarrassments for another.

The answer, we think, lies in insisting on the distinction between the human rights reports and the role of human rights in American policy. The reports are like scholastic aptitude tests: they measure something worth measuring, though not everything. But they must not be allowed to become the sole guide to policy. The moralistic tone and edge of adminstration policy, at least in the past, has nourished the impression that the adminstration takes the reports as its bible. The administration can corret this impression. In deed as in word, it can demonstrate that it is balancing out competing interests and that it is not sacrificing immediate and pressing security objectivies to a set of moral abstractions. It is not the reports that worry serious people. It is whether Jimmy Carter can do what he has to do where the choices have to be made.