The American members of Amnesty International slipped into town a week or so ago, almost unnoticed, to celebrate their organization's 20th anniversary, reflect upon its extraordinary record, discuss strategy and rededicate themselves to the cause of human rights.

Released "prisoners of conscience" from Argentina, the Soviet Union, South Korea, Cuba and the United States addressed a candlelight ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial. Delegations called on their congressional representatives and more than 125 foreign embassies.

Andrew Blane, an American member of Amnesty's intenational secretariat, spoke of the "illusory distinction," in the matter of human rights, between "totalitarian" and "authoritarian" violators -- the distinction so dear to the Reagan administration. "In terms of human rights," he said, "you don't examine the regime but rather the rights of individuals."

Other participants were as quick to dismiss an equally phony distinction between public upbraiding and "quiet diplomacy." In 20 years of handling over 20,000 cases and dispatching more than 350 missions to every corner of the world and every kind of regime, Amnesty has learned you have to try everything.

It seems to me that the Amnesty approach offers the perfect antidote to a poisonous and senseless politicizing of the human-rights debate in the wake of the fiasco over the failed nomination of Dr. Ernest Lefever to be assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs.

The argument becomes poisonous when it turns on the political connections of Jacobo Timerman, an undoubted victim of (and authority on) human-rights violations in Argentia -- or when Timerman goes beyond his particular expertise to play partisan politics in the course of the Lefever hearings. The same may be said when the White House vindictively thretens to take its own sweet time before naming a new candidate to the human-rights job -- or to abolish it.

Just to begin with, the post isn't the White House's to abolish. Congress created it, just as Congress wrote this country's human-rights policy into law. One does not detect in this Congress a disposition to repel those laws.

But that's not the real point. What Amnesty's experience lays bare, when you measure it against the Carter administration's record and the Reagan administration's promises, is the essential emptiness of the current debate.

On at least two counts, for example, the top man in the Reagan White House, Edwin Meese III, sounds remarkably like an Amnesty or even (perish the thought) a Carter administration man. "You see," he said on "Meet the Press" recently, "the objective is human rights, preserving them wherever there are violations."

And he added: "It's a matter then of using the most effective means, whether that's quiet diplomacy or whether it's public -- bringing things to public attention."

Cyrus Vance, as secretary of state, said, in his definitive Law Day speech in April 1977, of the Carter policy: "The means avilable range from quiet diplomacy in its many forms through public pronouncements to withholding of assistance."

So far, not much argument. But Meese said more: "What has happened in the past too often has been that we have punished our friends and rewarded our enemies. . . . We practiced quiet overlooking of human rights in the communist countries, and then castigated those countries that would like to be friendly to us."

That's not true, if the State Department's 1,140-page human rights report to Congress in 1980 is any guide. A full 15 pages are devoted to a tough indictment of the Soviet Union -- and a special condemnation for its practices in Afghanistan. The Carter administration "punished" the Soviets for just that, with a grain embargo among other things. Ronald Reagan lifted that embargo.

The report gives equally rough treatment (11 pages) to (totalitarian) Ethiopia and (authoritarian) Argentina. "Inhuman or degrading" is a phrase used to describe (totalitarian) Cuba's practices -- dealt with in 10 pages; (authoritarian) Guatemala required only seven. If there was "quiet overlooking of human rights [violations] in the communist countries," it doesn't show in the report's handling of mainland China or Vietnam or the Eastern European bloc.

In short, a large part of the human-rights debate now is warmed-over rhetoric from the Reagan presidential campaign, inflamed by the Lefever affair and encouraged, no doubt, by past rhetorical excesses in the Carter human-rights approach. The message from Amnesty International is that this sort of petty partisan politics is the mortal enemy of a consistent and principled human-rights policy.