The wrong signals are sent to three important groups by President Reagan's veto of legislation that would have required his administration to report regularly to Congress that human rights progress was being made in El Salvador. Reports of progress would have been a condition for continued military aid. Such a requirement has existed for the past two years; next year Congress likely will seek to restore it.
Meanwhile, the veto sends the wrong signals to the right-wing regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala by decreasing the pressure on them to make needed human rights improvements. This is so despite the White House's accompanying statement that ''the President wishes to emphasize that the administration remains fully committed to the support of democracy, reform, and human rights in El Salvador.'' The military regimes will listen more closely to the action than the words.
For the same reason, the veto sends the wrong signals to citizens of those two Central American nations as well as of Nicaragua, all of whom the US has been trying to woo. To win military and political struggles in these three nations the US must have popular support; yet the veto makes it more difficult to gain that backing.
Finally, the veto can be expected to speak more loudly than words to peoples of the third world, particularly sensitive to human rights records of the big powers.
The argument is made that the administration showed firm commitment to human rights by refusing entry into the US of two extremist Central American political figures: leading right-wing Salvadorean politician Roberto d'Aubuisson and the interior minister of Nicaragua, Tomas Borge Martinez. Yet this seems primarily a separate issue, an exclusion of extremists.
Solving human rights problems is never easy. But it is important that the US now act not only pragmatically but with vision so that no one in Central America or elsewhere can doubt US commitment to the human rights of all peoples.