The Reagan administration, countering criticism from congressional liberals angered by a decision to stop opposing international development bank loans to four Latin American military regimes, yesterday reiterated its determination to continue dismantling the activist human rights policies of former president Carter.
Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. testily defended the banking decision on grounds that the four countries have shown "dramatic, dramatic reductions" in abuses of human rights, and the White House enunciated a new policy on arms transfers that did not mention human rights.
The State Department also took the unusual step of publicly chastizing the American chairman of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission because rights violations in Chile.
The latest controversy about rights questions was touched off by a decision to reverse the policy instituted during the Carter administration of using the U.S. vote in the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank to oppose loans for Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay.
That policy was based on a 1977 law calling for such action against countries engaging in a "consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights."
In an encounter with reporters, Haig was asked about charges by congressional rights advocates that the administration's action violates the spirit of the law. He replied heatedly:
"We're not violating it at all. . . . In each of those cases, there has been progress in a host of areas, including and most importantly human rights. And it is the policy of the Reagan administration to recognize that progress and to adjust our policies accordingly.
"We have considerable evidence in each of the countries concerned -- dramatic, dramatic reductions -- in incidents categorized as reported violations of human rights [such as] disappearances and incarcerations."
Haig's remarks made clear that the administration plans to continue its "quiet diplomacy" approach that involves making distinctions in the rights area between "totalitarian regimes," such as that of the Soviet Union, and "authoritarian" governments willing to cooperate with U.S. security and diplomatic goals.
Liberal opposition to that policy already has forced Ernest W. Lefever, President Reagan's nominee to be assistant secretary of state for human rights, to withdraw from consideration because it appeared the Senate would not confirm him.
Now, the bank decision appears to be setting the stage for another test of strength between partisans of a strong rights policy and the administration.
Typical of the liberal reaction on Capitol Hill yesterday was the charge by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) that the bank decision was an "indication of the administration's disdain for human rights concerns" and "a blatant disregard for existing law."
Rep. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), another outspoken rights partisan, said he has requested a meeting with Haig and that he is exploring with sympathetic members of Congress such options as cutting off U.S. funding for the international banks.
In the meantime, the administration, in revealing its formal policy guidelines on conventional arms transfers, conspicuously failed to include human rights in a list of seven factors to be weighed in decisions about providing U.S. weapons to other countries.
Under Carter, a country's human rights record was one of the considerations officially taken into account in deciding its eligibility, for arms sales or assistance.
A White House statement issued yesterday said the main consideration will be whether arms transfers "complement American security commitments and serve important U.S. objectives."
A senior administration official, speaking at a background briefing, said human rights will still be considered in arms sales, but added: "We do not believe it should be the sole determinent."
In a May 21 speech spelling out the Reagan arms policy, James L. Buckley, undersecretary of state for security affairs, was more specific. He said then that Carter-era restraints based on human rights considerations had "substituted theology for a healthy sense of preservation."
Despite its reassurances that it considers human rights important, the Reagan administration has been moving to improve ties with several rightist military regimes, particularly in Latin America, whose arms-supply relationships with the United States were severed under Carter because of human rights factors.
Countries with which the administration hopes to restore close military cooperation and eventual resumption of arms sales include the four involved in the multinational bank decision.
In regard to another rights dispute, the State Department pointedly criticized Tom J. Farer, an American who became president of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission under Carter and recently was reelected to that post.
Farer had written an article in The New York Review of Books taking issue with current U.S. human rights policy. In it, he repeated some commission criticisms of Chile that drew a strong protest from the Chilean government.
In its comment, the State Department appeared, by implication, to be siding with Chile. It noted that the U.S. government had no role in Farer's election, and added: "The administration regrets that Mr. Farer appears to have used his position to promulgate his personal views."