Increased ethnic violence, a new emphasis on law and order and last month's violent crackdown on independence movements in the Baltics jeopardize the "dramatic growth in the exercise of political and civil rights" experienced in the Soviet Union through most of 1990, according to the State Department.

In its annual report to Congress on the status of individual liberties worldwide, the department said the changes carry "dangerous implications for the entire country."

The uneven situation it described in the Soviet Union was in keeping with the department's overall assessment of a year in which human rights around the world gained and suffered.

Last year the dramatic human rights gains of 1989, especially in Eastern Europe, were for the most part "being largely consolidated," the report found. But it also described continued widespread violations of human rights in China and Iraq's "reign of terror and human rights abuses" in Kuwait that it said "reminded the world of the dangers that repressive regimes can pose to regional security and international order."

"There is both good news and bad news," assistant secretary of state for human rights Richard Schifter said yesterday at a news conference.

"The good news," he said, is that "totalitarian and authoritarian dictatorships are on a decline worldwide and democracy and respect for the rights of the individual by governments are on the rise."

The bad news is "the problem of death and destruction associated with inter-ethnic and inter-communal conflict," which "has moved to the foreground of human rights concerns," he said.

The 1,700-page report, covering 168 countries, is prepared at the direction of Congress, which outlines areas that need to be reviewed, including freedom of speech, religion and travel. The reporting is done by embassies and is intended to be factual.

But a private organization, Human Rights Watch, while praising the overall report, denounced several of the country sections as improperly influenced by political considerations. "Fear of embarrassing Saudi Arabia" led to "underrepresenting the seriousness of human rights abuses" there, Human Rights Watch claimed, while the killing of 17 Palestinian demonstrators in Jerusalem last October received "only cursory treatment."

The organization also criticized the brief mention of the killing of unarmed demonstrators in Lithuania and Latvia as an "inappropriate gift" to Moscow and said the report "all but ignores significant abuses of human rights by the American-armed UNITA" rebels fighting the leftist government in Angola.

Africa was one area where "new democratic ferment was most clearly in evidence," the report said, noting "significant movement away from apartheid in South Africa," movement toward democratic rule in sub-Saharan Africa and independence for Namibia.

But the region also saw "large-scale death and devastation" from civil wars and clan-based or tribal warfare in Liberia, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan. And while the government in Pretoria was praised for aiming at dismantling apartheid, the "black majority remained disenfranchised and continued to suffer from pervasive discrimination." And whatever progress occurred was made against "a bloody backdrop . . . {of} escalating violence," the report said.

The human rights outlook in Latin America also was mixed, the department said. Nicaragua, Haiti and Chile were moving into the ranks of democracies, and leaving Cuba as the only Marxist regime in the region. But leftist insurgencies and "excessive responses by government security forces" caused "scores of noncombat deaths in El Salvador, hundreds in both Colombia and Guatemala and 3,000 to 4,000 in Peru," it said.

The human rights situation was uneven in Asia as well, the report said, with moves toward democracy in Mongolia and Nepal offset by repression in China and North Korea, which "remains one of the most severely repressive regimes in the world."

Burma experienced one of the major setbacks for democracy in Asia last year, the report said. Elections held to end decades of dictatorship were nullified by the military. Schifter called Burma "one of the real sad cases" last year.