IN A MORE civilized world, governments would not occupy themselves -- would not have to -- with the choices of individuals to move from place to place. But because the Soviet Union insists on controlling such choices, and the United States and other Western countries believe deeply that individuals should make such choices for themselves, a whole office of East-West diplomacy has grown up to deal with the subject -- the Helsinki process. This traveling office met most recently in Bern, where two good things happened: an effort to agree on a final document broke down, and some 100-odd Soviet citizens (the figure later went up to 200) were given permission to leave for the United States.

To grasp why both of these developments were desirable, you have to remember two things about Helsinki. First, there are already plenty of agreements on paper: compliance is the crying need. Second, the value of Helsinki rests principally on the relief it can bring to individuals. It can seem trite in the overall scheme of things that, say, a few married couples forcibly separated by the Soviet border are permitted to get together on the Western side of it. The frustrations are very great, especially when you contemplate the huge number of individuals whose freedom the Soviet government continues to deny.

It is one of the quiet prides of Western diplomacy, however, that resources are devoted to bringing choice to a small number of the individuals for whom the "Iron Curtain" is no mere political symbol but the central feature of their lives. It reminds West and East alike of the difference between them. This is what should come to mind when people question, as they often do, whether Helsinki is worth the wear.

Of all the families in distress in the Soviet Union, none is so well known as the Sakharovs, and none is worthier of benefitting from the limited liberties the Soviet government promised its citizens when it signed the Helsinki accords. The physicist's wife has now returned from the United States to rejoin her husband in his internal exile at Gorki. The other day a Soviet official suggested, viciously, that Yelena Bonner's criticisms while abroad of the treatment of her husband had "jeopardized" his chances of going even to his home in Moscow.

Here are two tired and sick people, whom a just government would honor, facing further persecution. Evidently the Kremlin sees profit in flaunting its capacity to reject international appeals in their behalf. Or is the mighty Soviet state quaking at the thought that their example might embolden other Soviet citizens to ask to be treated in a minimally decent and lawful way?