IT IS regrettable in a sense that the Helsinki Accords review conference at Madrid, opening tomorrow, falls during the American interregnum. People will be waiting to see how President-elect Ronald Reagan approaches "Helsinki," the 35-nation (Europe, East and West, plus the United States and Canada) agreements of 1975 at which the Soviet Union gained formal Western agreement that Europe's postwar borders would not be changed by force and, in return, the United States and its allies gained Soviet-bloc assent to inscribing "human rights" on the continuing international agenda. This is the second review conference for Jimmy Carter, and it does not seem that he can do much more at Madrid than conduct a holding operation.

This is fine. Such is the controversy and confusion surrounding Jimmy Carter's human rights policy that a pause would have been in order even had he won reelection. From the start he took a narrow moralistic view of the subject. What he never acknowledged was the way in which his concept of human rights could be exploited by others as a weapon of the Cold War pure and simple, and the matching way in which the Kremlin would see his policy as a frontal assault on the very legitmacy of its rule. Former secretary of state Cyrus Vance, for one, tried to redefine Mr. Carter's sweeping goals into the kind of fine print that would allow other aspects of Soviet-American relations, like arms control, to move ahead, but he fell short.

It will be Mr. Reagan's task to try to think through this equation anew. He does not appear to have the intense personal commitment to human rights that at once drove Jimmy Carter and engaged his personal prestige in his policy. A man of Mr. Reagan's outlook in East-West affairs is likely to look favorably on the use of the human rights cause as an instrument for encouraging individual and group challenges to the authority of the Soviet state. At the same time, he and some of his advisers share a sense that human rights are ultimately something to be fitted into the general political context, with everything else. Some would call this cynical. We would call it realistic. The low-key Nixon-Ford-Kissinger approach was, in terms of actual benefits to suffering human beings in the Soviet bloc, arguably more effective than was the high-profile Carter policy.

The trouble is, of course, that human rights are a consideration outside as well as inside the Soviet bloc, and there a different set of standards necessarily applies. Specifically, human rights are violated in many of the non-communist countries that are otherwise regarded as friends and sometimes are formal allies of the United States. This has created the condition of endemic inconsistency that has eroded popular and bureaucratic support of the Carter policy from the beginning: criticizing violations by anti-communist friends in the name of American ideals, even while countenancing far more pervasive and systemic violations by some communist states in the name of Realpolitik.

Gov. Reagan addressed this condition of inconsistency last Thursday. About all he said, however, was that it troubled him. It should.But it would be foolish to seek out perfect consistency in this field. That could be achieved by making human rights either a dominant factor or a negligible one in both communist and non-communist places -- obviously, this is out of the question. At the same time, it would be terrible for Mr. Reagan to vindicate the human rights violators in the Third World who see in his election their salvation in power.

Meanwhile, Madrid. The Soviet Union, in the Helsinki Accords, accepted concrete obligations on human rights, and it should be held to them. These apply to victimized people within the Soviet Union and they also apply to others within the immediate reach of Soviet power -- conspicuously, the Poles. The Carter administration has nothing to lose by making a fair, tough and effective case in its sunset days. The people for whom it will be speaking conceivably have a good deal to gain.