WHEN Indonesian military police began beating and arresting factory workers, Mickey Kantor, the US trade representative, threatened economic sanctions. But last November, on the eve of President Clinton's visit to Jakarta, Mr. Kantor suddenly lifted the threat - much to the distress of US human-rights groups.
Not only is police brutality ongoing in Indonesia, these groups report, but lifting the trade threat undermined the cadre of Indonesian activists that stuck their necks out when the US government took up their cause.
It is the kind of story heard often when human-rights leaders assess the Clinton administration's record of the past three years.
Human-rights advocates were buoyed by candidate Clinton's strong stance on human rights. Today, however, they express a nearly universal sense of disappointment about the White House record. Lack of follow-through and of a coherent policy have harmed US credibility and tarnished its role in raising international standards of justice, they say.
Talking the talk
''The Clinton administration has spoken the right language of human rights,'' says deputy director of Amnesty International Gerald LeMelle. ''But its actions have been seriously lacking.''
The administration argues the rise of weak governments and ethnic violence makes it more difficult to press the case of human rights in the post-cold-war world. Given these constraints, says Tom Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, ''The White House has done about the best it could given the hand it was dealt.''
Human rights, while rarely an issue that drives US foreign or trade policy, has taken on an increasingly significant role in recent decades as part of the American diplomatic toolkit used to express disfavor with repressive regimes. The Helsinki principles signed in the late 1970s by NATO and Warsaw Pact nations - and criticized as naive at the time - are today regarded as influential in helping to create the ''glasnost,'' or openness, that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. US trade sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s are likewise credited with helping to end apartheid in that country.
''It took a hard fight, but human rights won a place at the table in the State Department,'' says a former senior US diplomat. ''Rights are now recognized as a useful form of realpolitik.''
The human-rights community says that Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck, the White House point man on human rights, is a tireless advocate for democratic values. United Nations Ambassador Madeleine Albright also receives high marks.
But a broad range of human-rights leaders, experts, and present and former US officials say Mr. Shattuck's effectiveness has been undermined by his lack of access to high administration officials. And they fault the overall administration record - citing most often the cases of China, Turkey, and Egypt, US arms-sales policy, and reluctance to intervene at key moments in crises such as those in Bosnia and Rwanda.
Advocates cite Nigeria as the most recent example of the administration's ''too little, too late'' intervention on human-rights cases. After international outrage over the execution of nine Nigerian activists two weeks ago, including renowned author Ken Saro-Wiwa, Mr. Clinton recalled the US ambassador and halted US military sales to Nigeria. But, says Mr. LeMelle, ''pleas for clemency came at the eleventh hour. We have been telling them about this case for months.''
Critics are especially concerned about the administration's record - most notably in China - of using US trade and aid as leverage in getting repressive regimes to improve their behavior. Having accused the Bush administration of ''coddling'' the ''butchers'' in Beijing, Clinton threatened to revoke China's favorable trading status unless the country made significant progress in ending human-rights abuses. Yet in 1994, after a face-off with business leaders, Clinton dropped the demand. Today abuses continue including the disappearance of 22 leading dissidents last summer.
The bottom line
''Even if you don't agree with the [most favored nation] approach, the notion that the administration will pursue human rights in the face of strong economic interests has been the main promise broken,'' says Michael Posner of the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights in New York.
While popular criticism of the Clinton administration's human-rights record focuses on China, the handling of Rwanda is also drawing fire. Following the deaths of 19 American servicemen in Somalia, the White House remained silent during two crucial weeks at the outset of the Rwandan massacres. It also supported withdrawal of UN troops. ''It was the 'Mogadishu effect,' '' says one State Department official involved in the decision. ''We sat by while 500,000 people died. We did not do even the little bit we could have.''
''Coming at the height of the massacres, the decision had enormous ... consequences,'' says Holly Burkhalter, head of Human Rights Watch.
The administration defends its record, pointing to the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Haiti, and support of the war-crimes tribunal on the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as just two of its human-rights successes.
''We've been working close to the ground in Haiti and in Turkey, condemning torture,'' says an administration official. ''A word we like to use a lot is accountability.''
Yet while acknowledging the successes, the difficulties of the post-cold-war era, and even a preference for Democrats in the White House, the human-rights community says the record should be better. They describe a pattern of last-minute reversals, mixed signals, and a reluctance to use force for fear of domestic repercussions.
The latter point hit home this summer when a coalition of more than 15 leading American human-rights groups supported US military intervention in Bosnia. It was the first time such interests had ever advocated force.
''The confusion over human rights in the White House has less to do with a failure to articulate human rights, than with a willingness to use force,'' says Joshua Rubenstein, director of Amnesty International in Boston.
''You would go into a meeting with officials, get promises and preliminary agreements,'' said a top official at a prominent human-rights group, ''and then nothing.''
The confusion and difficulty faced by the White House arose last week during the Balkan peace talks in Dayton, Ohio. For the first time, the chief prosecutor of the UN war-crimes tribunal last week complained the administration was holding back material that would solidify a case against Bosnian Serb leaders Gen. Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. Even US spy satellite photos of mass graves in Bosnia, widely reprinted in American newspapers, had not been turned over.
A White House spokesman said the material was held for security reasons. The White House later reversed its decision and agreed to cooperate.
Human-rights insiders say the test of the White House on war crimes will be whether it will actively continue to support the tribunal's funding after this year's allotment ends in December.