President Reagan signaled last week that he intends to raise the human-rights issue at next month's Geneva summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, but in doing so he is likely to rekindle the debate over his rights policy.

Reagan's critics charge that the president sees a human-rights discussion as a political and propaganda weapon that can be employed effectively against the Soviet Union and such communist allies as Nicaragua.

But they argue that the president often has abandoned his tough rhetoric on human-rights abuses in countries the United States considers important to its interests. When he has spoken out, as in such recent cases as South Africa and the Philippines, they say it is only because of public and congressional pressure.

The administration's summit strategy became clearer when Reagan addressed the United Nations on Thursday and quoted from Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov's Nobel Peace Prize appeal for the Soviet Union to become an "open society" respectful of basic human rights.

Administration officials say Reagan will tell Gorbachev that the Soviet Union has failed to keep human-rights commitments made 10 years ago when it joined 34 other nations in signing the Helsinki accords.

While U.S. positions are being worked out, the officials say they hope that raising the Helsinki accords will serve as a springboard for discussion of such problems as restrictions on the emigration of Soviet Jews; imprisonment and harassment of dissidents like Sakharov, Anatoly Scharansky and many lesser known figures; use of psychiatric techniques and incarceration in mental institutions to stifle dissent, and widespread abuses by Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Even administration critics agree that the United States should seek to raise these issues at Geneva. But they argue that the administration's failure to apply its tough-talk tactics across the board will hurt the U.S. case at Geneva and permit Gorbachev to dismiss Reagan's charges as a political ploy.

Perhaps the most biting criticism of Reagan's record comes from Patt Derian, the outspoken and combative boss of human-rights policy during the Carter administration.

"The Reagan administration's human-rights policy is like 'The Wizard of Oz,' " she said. "Outwardly, it seems like a big scary face issuing edicts amid claps of thunder. But when you look behind the curtain, you find there's nothing there but a little, inadequate old man trying to create an illusion by frantically pushing the buttons on a sound-and-light machine."

Richard Schifter, who is about to assume Derian's old post as assistant secretary of state for human rights, dismisses such charges as a "distortion or misunderstanding" of what the administration is trying to do. In an interview, he described the Carter administration policy of scolding offending governments as "the feel-good approach to human rights."

"Ultimately human-rights policy has to concern itself with the fate of human beings," he said. "What is important is if we can get somebody out of jail, get a sentence commuted, get a policy changed. If that can be arranged best without engaging in a great deal of public outcry, then we've achieved our goal."

Schifter said that when "it becomes clear that quiet discussion has failed, we need to speak out forcefully. And we have not hesitated to do so. We need to be result-oriented, and we deal with each situation on a case-by-case basis depending on what seems necessary to get results."

He said it was that approach, and not a desire to avoid being left behind by public and congressional opinion, that prompted the administration to criticize the governments in South Africa and the Philippines.

The administration has criticized Moscow's human-rights record because the Soviets consistently have rebuffed all efforts to engage them in quiet diplomacy, Schifter said. Recalling his service as U.S. representative to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Schifter said he had been involved in repeated attempts to stimulate private talks with his Soviet counterparts, "but they always answered by first saying they were not ready and then that they were not authorized."

Although the views that Schifter expounds meet with considerable skepticism from those who preferred the activist approach of the Carter era, not all of the critics are as harsh as Derian in assessing the Reagan administration's record.

One of those observers is Aryeh Neier, a long-time domestic and international rights activist who is vice chairman of Helsinki Watch, which monitors violations in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe of the Helsinki accords, and Americas Watch, which acts as a watchdog on rights abuses in Latin America.

Neir generally agrees with the administration's approach to Soviet behavior in Eastern Europe. However, on Latin American questions, he has quarreled frequently and bitterly with the administration. Americas Watch has accused the administration of consistently glossing over rights abuses by the U.S.-backed goverment in El Salvador and ignoring atrocities allegedly committed by the U.S.-supported guerrillas fighting the leftist government in Nicaragua.

"Our view is that human-rights policy should be applied in an even-handed manner across the board," he said. "The United States would be able to argue more effectively and from a position of greater moral authority about abuses in the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia if it took the same approach to abuses in El Salvador and Guatemala.

"Obviously there are many factors that go into the formulation of foreign policy, and sometimes that means that human rights are subordinated to other considerations. That was true in the Carter administration, and realism dictates that it will always be the case to some degree. But that does not excuse what we feel is frequent misrepresentation and deliberately relying on suspect statistics in reporting about human-rights abuses in Central America because it is more convenient to do that when you're justifying administration policy to Congress."

However, while Neier stressed that he has strong objections to many administration practices, he also acknowledged that the administration's approach to human rights has undergone considerable change since Reagan took office in 1981.

"It's not generally recognized, but there has been an evolution," he said. "This administration came in openly antagonistic to the concept of a human -- rights policy. They would have dropped it if Congress, which mandated the program, hadn't said no. As a result, the situation has evolved in a way where, while many people don't agree with the policy, a policy does exist, and they have followed it according to their lights."

Neier and others familiar with the situation ascribe most of the credit to Schifter's predecessor, Elliott Abrams, who held the post from 1981 until last summer when he became assistant secretary for inter-American affairs. Like Schifter, Abrams is a Democrat who supported Reagan in the 1980 presidential campaign.

Reagan's first choice for the post, Ernest Lefever, was so outspoken in his criticism of the Carter administration's approach to human rights that the Senate balked at his nomination and forced him to withdraw. Abrams then drew the assignment of proving that the administration did have a commitment to human rights that was sincere and workable despite its divergence from the way things had been done in the Carter administration.

It meant that for almost five years he had to walk a tightrope between suspicious liberals of the Derian persuasion and the Republican far right, which has never wavered from its determination to eliminate the human-rights program completely. However, he won the backing of Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who shares the belief that progress can be made in human rights by a judicious exercise of quiet diplomacy.

Abrams' most convincing performance involved Chile, where he became convinced that the administration's attempts to coax a repressive military regime toward liberalization were not working. In the face of strong opposition from many State Department officials and conservative Republicans, Abrams persuaded Shultz to engineer a policy shift that included firing an American ambassador who was regarded as too close to the regime, openly criticizing the regime for its recalcitrance and backing up the criticism with minor but symbolic economic gestures of displeasure.

His handling of Chile fell considerably short of what an activist like Derian might have advocated. But it gave Abrams a reputation as a "radical" in right-wing circles, and critics on both sides admitted that he and Shultz were unwilling to let "quiet diplomacy" become a mere code term for doing nothing.

Schifter said he expects to continue running the human-rights program along the same general lines.

"The question is how do we get results," he said. "How do we get to where we want to go in a particular situation. If we can do it through reasoning and talking softly, fine. If it means getting tougher, I think we've shown we won't shrink from that when necessary. And that doesn't mean just being tough with the Soviet Union. I've only been here a short time, but I've found already that I spend many more hours on problems that are outside the Soviet bloc than in it."