Chile has asked the government of Spain to begin bilateral arbitration to determine whether a Spanish court has the right to try former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet under the international treaty governing crimes of torture.

If the two countries fail to agree in six months, Chile proposes that the issue be turned over to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The Chilean proposal, made three weeks ago and still unanswered, is part of an effort by Santiago to give Madrid's center-right government a way to avoid what neither government wants--a Pinochet trial in Spain. The former dictator faces charges there that he is responsible for human rights violations, including some of the more than 3,000 disappearances, deaths by torture and extrajudicial executions that occurred during his 16-year rule following a bloody 1973 coup.

Those opposed to any deal, including human rights organizations around the world, have charged that the unwritten assumption in the proposal is that any arbitrators appointed by the two governments would be predisposed to send Pinochet home.

The Chilean plan assumes that Pinochet will lose an extradition trial in Britain now scheduled for Sept. 27. Pinochet was detained in London in October in response to a Spanish warrant, and he has been held under house arrest there since.

"This has nothing to do with defending Gen. Pinochet," Chilean Foreign Minister Juan Gabriel Valdes said in an interview in Washington yesterday, but rather with "differing interpretations of the treaty." Although there is no love lost between Chile's democratic government and Pinochet--whose regime forced Valdes and many other government officials into exile--Chile maintains that the Spanish warrant impinges on its sovereign right to deal with Pinochet as it chooses.

Valdes met here yesterday with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to discuss a range of bilateral issues that he emphasized did not include Pinochet.

Washington has been eager to stay out of the Pinochet matter, which has become a political minefield for all three countries directly involved. It began when a Spanish prosecutor, Balthasar Garzon, issued an arrest warrant charging Pinochet with genocide, state terrorism and torture. The arrest marked the first time a former foreign head of state was charged with such crimes, allegedly committed in his own country, by a second country under international treaty. Interpretation of the 1984 Convention Against Torture--to which all three are signatories--is still evolving.

Subsequent decisions in British courts have limited the charges, but Pinochet's lawyers have failed to have the case thrown out. The British right has accused the Labor government of Prime Minister Tony Blair of bowing to the international left in a campaign for revenge against Pinochet. The left has warned Blair's government that Britain is obliged under international law to try Pinochet on its own if the extradition request fails.

In Spain, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has come under sharp criticism from the media, and from prosecutor Garzon, for not dismissing Chile's proposal out of hand. Garzon has publicly warned Aznar to stay out of judicial affairs. In a statement yesterday, Aznar reaffirmed the government's respect for judicial prerogatives but said, "if the government receives . . . a letter from the government of Chile or any other government in the world, naturally it will study it."