The most damaging witness in the Senate hearings on the normination of Dr. Ernest Lefever to the custodian of his country's human rights concerns was . . . Dr. Ernest Lefever.

He was evasive and defensive. He was expeient in his new-found support for the human rights laws he would have to enforce as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. He is disingenuous, if not downright deceptive, and quite incapable of reconciling the two Ernest Lefevers; the self-professed "life-long do-gooder" who would use the clergy as undercover agents for the CIA.

He raised serious questions of a conflict of interest between his Ethics and Public Policy Center and Nestle Corp.--serious enough to suggest the need for further investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff.

But leave all that aside. It is not necessary to find Lefever to be a slippery witness or to catch him in improprieties (or illegalities) to judge him unqualified for the ob. By his own testimony, and earlier pronouncements, he has declared himself unfit for duty on the central issue: human rights.

Never mind that he told the committee that he "goofed" when he testified before a House hearing two years ago that he would "remove from the statute books all clauses that establish a human rights standard or condition that must be met by another sovereign government before our government transacts normal business with it." What else could he possibly say now that he has been nominated to apply those laws?

The point is that Lefever never has liked those laws, because he has never believed in their purposes--and still doesn't. Even after they were on the books, he wrote in his definitive 1978 treatise, "The Trivialization of Human Rights," that, "In a formal and legal sense, the U.S. Government has no responsibility--and certainly no authority--to promote human rights in other sovereign states."

That is to say, Lefever didn't acknowledge the legal authority, even while (in the same treatise) he was actually citing it. The Foreign Assistance Act, Section 502B, he wrote, is "designed to prohibit or restrict" military assistance to any government "which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, including torture, or cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges. . . ."

He knew all about that law--and others that set up procedures for "continuous observation" of aid recipients and regular fitness reports to Congress. And naturally he saw no use for them, given his single-minded, anti-communist crusading approach to the problem. "The greatest threat to human rights," he wrote, "comes from messianic totalitarian regimes whose brutal grip brooks no opposition. . . ."

Totalitarians (read that communists) "have never moved peacefully to more responsive rule," which is to say that they are beyond reforming. As for authoritarian states (read that friendly, anti-communist military dictatorships and absolute monarchs), Lefever can't for the life of him see a whole lot of repression that reputable international agencies can plainly see in, say, Argentina, Guatemala, El Salvador--surely not enough, in any case, to merit a public fight.

The human rights activists, he insists, are so hung up on "the minor abridgment of certain rights in authoritarian states" that they miss the "massive threat to the liberty of millions" posed by the totalitarians.

This was Lefever's bottom line two years ago, when no government job beckoned: "Beyond serving as a good example and maintaining our security commitments, there is little the U.S. government can or should do to advance human rights, other than using quiet diplomatic channels at appropriate times and places."

But the law, and common sense, demands much more. Without a compeling public commitment, quiet diplomacy has little force. By its nature, it has not only to start quiet but to stay quiet. Its practice and its consequences must be taken on faith.

Ernest Lefever has no such commitment. Still less would he inspire faith.

He does not fit the job description defined by Charlles Percy, the committee's chairman: "We want an advocate, a spokesman who is looked to as a leader in world opinion in the fight for [human] rights." So the issue here does not turn on the president's right to "philosophically compatible" aides, as the White House argues. It turns on the people's right to have the law enforced.

To confirm Ernest Lefever would be to make a mockery of laws that he himself has mocked.