Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. is reported to have selected to run his human rights bureau a conservative scholar who believes that the United States should be less critical of friendly but authoritarian regimes.
The appointment of Ernest W. Lefever as an assistant secretary of state would be likely to please some of the conservatives in the US Senate who have been critical of many of Mr. Haig's other appointments. Liberal human-rights groups are likely to be dismayed.
The expected appointment brings the State Department's Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs into line with the dominant thinking in the Reagan administration that the Carter administration's emphasis on human rights was counterproductive and that primary emphasis must be on strategy goals and military security.
Patricia M. Derian, head of the human rights bureau in the Carter administration, insisted on criticizing authoritarian regimes that were friendly to the United States. She often came into conflict with bureaucrats in charge of relations with such regimes who felt protective of them.
One of Dr. Lefever's most controversial assertions has been that South Africa should be a "full-fledged partner" of the United States in the "struggle against communist expansion." The Carter administration took a cool attitude toward South Africa because of that country's racial policies. And from time to time it openly criticized the South African government for its repression of blacks.
Lefever, who is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., "think tank," criticized President Carter for putting pressure for democratic reforms on South Korea, on Nicaragua when it was led by Anastasio Somoza, and on Iran when it was ruled by the late Shah.
Writing for the opinion page of the New York Times on June 18, 1980, Lefever said that the pressure on South Korea was "bound to undermine a loyal ally under relentless siege by a Stalinist North Korea backed by Moscow." He added that "Mr. Carter seems unaware that South Korea, like most third- world countries, has virtually no democratic tradition, no experience with competitive politics, and little concept of a loyal opposition."
Carter, he said, "seems to believe that Korean dissidents are authentic advocates of democracy and human rights rather than a mixture of naive utopians and power-hungry ideologues determined to pursue ill-defined goals illegally and by force."
Lefever's center published a study in 1979 that was highly critical of the activities of the World Council of Churches inside developing nations. He has written a report on a study that was critical of the coverage of defense and foreign policy issues by CBS-TV news in 1972-73. He also has written extensively on African affairs and on ethics and world politics. He holds a BD degree and a PhD in Christian ethics from Yale University.
Dr. Lefever considers himself a "conservative in the best sense" but also a "liberal in the best sense." He explains that he is a conservative in that he believes in a limited role for government -- he thinks the US government engages in excessive regulation -- and leans toward a larger role for the economic market. But he considers himself "liberal" under his definition of a liberal as one who is tolerant of other points of view, open to new data, and compassionate.
In a telephone interview, Lefever pointed out that he is not against urging other governments to adhere to human rights standards. But feels that this can best be done through "quiet diplomacy."
He acknowledges that South Africa has racial problems. But he also thinks that the South African government is making progress toward solving those problems and should be dealt with through quiet "nudging" rather than public "preaching."
His own background includes service in the US civil rights movement as well as volunteer work in Western Europe helping to return prisoners of war at the end of World War II.
An article in the current issue of The Village Voice (New York City) accuses Lefever's center of accepting major contributions from the Nestle Corporation after initiating a study on Nestle's infant formula sales in developing nations. But Lefever says that Nestle's total contributions to the center come to only 2. 8 percent of its budget for 1979-80 and that the contributions are excluded for use in any study on the disputed infa nt formula.