Deliberate torture of helpless victims is certainly among the most despicable acts in the long, lamentable catalogue of human crime. There is no question that it should be outlawed everywhere.

Unfortunately, making torture an international crime has been slow in coming. A United Nations Convention Against Torture was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly in 1984 after seven years in the drafting stage.The U.S. strongly supported the U.N. effort and a non-binding resolution was passed by Congress and later signed by the president. Yet formal signing of the treaty was not done by the U.S. until last month and the Senate still has not formally ratified the action.

The pact calls for persons engaging in torture to be prosecuted. It prohibits the sending of refugees or others back to countries where they risk torture. It says that "following orders" can't be used as a defense for engaging in torture and that statements obtained under torture cannot be used as legal evidence. It obligates governments to investigate allegations of torture and sets up a special 10-member U.N. commission to look into such complaints. These are all sensible principles.

Of course, the fact that a government signs the U.N. convention does not mean it has clean hands. Among those that have rushed to sign are Mexico, Argentina, Uganda, and the Soviet Union - all of whom have had suspicious behavior in the past.

Despite the checkered reputation of some signers, it still means something to be a participant in the treaty, if only as a symbol. While the rest of the world no doubt understands that the U.S. is emphatically against torture, it doesn't look good for America to be lagging behind in official ratification.

The Senate should move quickly to ratify the Convention Against Torture. This is an issue where the U.S. should lead, not follow.