London. -- The Kurds won't let us forget the Kurds. It's almost exactly a year ago that Saddam Hussein, defeated in war, a despot set on genocide, turned his guns on the Kurds. To forestall a massacre, the U.N. Security Council authorized an unprecedented military intervention in the internal affairs of a member country. Yet today Mr. Hussein's economic squeeze on the Kurds continues.
And now it's Turkey's turn. A week ago the Kurds of eastern Turkey, close to the Iraqi border, clashed with security forces; at least 60 died. It was the most defiant and widespread resistance to Turkey's rule in decades. Only a few days before, Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel had sent Turkish air force planes across the Iraqi frontier to bomb the hideaways of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which alternately intimidates and inspires the Kurdish population of Turkey. Mr. Demirel promises to keep up the intensity of the crackdown.
The rugged mountains where Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet have been called Kurdistan since the early 13th century, and the Kurds' roots can be traced back at least 2,000 years. Most of the 23 million Kurds live in the region, although a million or so have emigrated to Istanbul, Baghdad, Tehran and Beirut, often assimilating with the local people.
But here lies the paradox. In their inability to cooperate, the Kurds of Iraq, Turkey and Iran might as well be three different peoples. Of course, when Mr. Hussein's bombing raids started and Iraq's Kurds poured across the mountains into Turkey, the Turkish Kurds helped them. But most of the time Kurdish leaders, whether in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, the Soviet Union, Syria or Lebanon, do not meet, do not talk, and often speak different languages, and even write in different scripts.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, a casualty of World War I, undermined by British arms and intrigue, most of its subject peoples knew what they wanted. Greeks, Arabs, Armenians and Jews all demanded their own homelands, claiming a right to nationhood, in one case within God-given borders. The Kurds, distinct but indistinct, lacked the resolve that comes from possessing a single ethnic origin, religion, language or leadership, and thus were relegated to the sidelines of the nationalist drama. The opportunity passed them by, and it has passed them by ever since.
The nation states of the Middle East are now so firmly established that none will contemplate making room for another. So what is to be done about this people, the Kurds? The rest of the world has the responsibility to insist that the Kurds are given, in the words of the U.N. Charter, ''respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination.'' Needless to say, the Kurds too have the responsibility to achieve this by ''peaceful means.''
In the long run of history, this might mean independence. But no sensible person or authority could argue a good case for it today. Only the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party seem drawn to it and that only for the Kurds of Turkey.
Local autonomy is another matter. The Kurds of Iraq seem more than ready to settle for that if they get a reasonable deal, and Mr. Hussein must now be pushed to agree to one. Probably a majority of Kurds in Turkey would settle for an even more modest version of autonomy.
What the outside world can demand at once is that the persecution of the Kurds be stopped. If the world community had condemned Iraq's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1987 and 1988 maybe Mr. Hussein would never have deceived himself into thinking he could get away with other adventures. The Security Council, back on track with the program to dismantle Iraqi weapons, should now pick up French and British proposals to send a special envoy to Iraq to demand that it end economic blockade of the Kurds.
Turkey, too, needs to be reminded yet again -- and publicly -- that brutal and uncompromising treatment of the Kurds will compromise its request to be admitted to the European Community. But since it's time for fortress Europe to invite in its first Muslim, but secular, member, with its important links to the ex-Soviet Muslim republics, the EC should find a positive rephrasing of its reservations: If the Kurdish issue is resolved peacefully, then nothing major would stand in the way of Turkey's joining the EC. This would encourage the already sizable body of liberal opinion in Turkey that favors a change from repression to conciliation.
''A Nation Denied'' is the title of a new book on the Kurds by that useful watchdog, the Minority Rights Group. Denied for the time being, perhaps yes. But a people respected is a basic minimum of our age.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.