THE prominence of human rights in the news coming back from the Moscow summit tells us, in part, how little else there was for the principals to talk about there. It also casts light on Ronald Reagan's priorities. He is deeply concerned about the absence of full religious freedom in the Soviet Union and the Soviets' reluctance to allow the emigration of those who wish to leave.
He criticized the Soviet record on such matters during his rest stop in Helsinki on the way to Moscow, opened the play at his first working session with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev by handing him a list of 14 people the United States would like to have allowed to leave the USSR, and received a selective list of ``refusedniks'' at the US Embassy residence at Spaso House later.
From somewhat conflicting reports to and from the reporters with the Reagan trip, it seems that Mr. Reagan accompanied the list with a lecture on human rights which drew from Mr. Gorbachev a sharp retaliatory lecture on alleged human rights shortcomings in the United States.
The chances are that the Reagan lecture will make little if any difference in Soviet policy. Nor was it likely to spoil the visit in other respects. The Soviets have come to understand that domestic American politics imposes on Reagan the necessity of using his leverage at such meetings to extract a few more exit visas for refusedniks, which it usually does.
Gorbachev seems both to resent this standard procedural lecture and to set it aside when the two get to the business of arms control, regional issues (Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola), and trade. The chances are that Reagan could get just as many exit visas for the refusedniks, perhaps more, if he were to raise the matter privately and quietly, but an American president can never forget his domestic political constituents.
One may hope that this latter is a point that Anatoly Dobrynin can explain to his leader out of Mr. Dobrynin's long years in Washington. There is no evidence that Reagan's public parading of the human rights issue was at the price of progress in other matters during the visit. Meanwhile, the fact stands out that Reagan is more sensitive to human rights deprivations in the USSR than in other places in the world where the record is as bad or worse.
There are of course plenty of human rights violations in the USSR. Thousands of Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians have been transported to the far reaches of Siberia or Turkestan, and denied permission to return home. The practice of the Roman Catholic religion in those Baltic states has been constrained and harassed. The Pope's elevation of a Lithuanian bishop to the cardinalate is a form of protest against anti-Catholic harassment. Ethnic Germans have had great difficulty in obtaining exit visas.
The other side of the coin is that there is more freedom for religious practice under Gorbachev than there was from Joseph Stalin through Leonid Brezhnev, and substantially more than there ever was for the nonorthodox under the czars. If you want to test religious freedom in other places, try to organize a Protestant church in Rome, or build a Roman Catholic church in Stockholm. It can be done, but not easily.
There has been much improvement in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. More than half of the political prisoners have been released, and the rest are supposed to be released soon. Changes in the laws are promised which will put an end to imprisonment for having unusual political sentiments, or for being a Hari Krishna.
Jews have been badly treated in Russia from way back. The New York Times discovered the other day that Americans were protesting mistreatment of Russian Jews in 1820. It was far worse during the pogroms that were unleashed periodically from 1895 down to World War I.
And who is worse off today, a Jewish refusednik in the USSR, a black political protester in South Africa, an Arab anti-occupation demonstrator on the West Bank of Palestine, or, perhaps, even an American Indian on a non-oil-rich reservation?
Mr. Reagan's moral indignation is selective.