10/30/2012 04:39 EDT | Updated 12/29/2012 05:12 EST

Will Canada Answer the "Kurdish Question"?

Hundreds of Kurdish prisoners in Turkey have been on a hunger strike for over a month. According to CNN, they demand equal Kurdish language rights in education and in courts, as well as the release of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the infamous Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK).

The PKK has had a long armed struggle with Turkey since its foundation in 1984.

While the PKK does not necessarily represent the views of all Kurds in Turkey, let alone the Kurdish diaspora in Canada, the hunger strike needs attention.

The first Canadian response has come from Liberal interim leader Bob Rae, who tweeted "700 Kurdish politicians in Turkish jails have been fasting 45 days for freedom of Kurdish rights in Turkey -- where's Canada's voice?"

Mr. Rae is right. The Kurdish demands do indeed require a response, not only from Canada but from the rest of the world also. But the response must be delicate, as problems surrounding the "Kurdish Question" are very much bound up with Turkey's modern self-image.

The Turkish constitution envisages a unitary nation-state on the pattern of post-revolutionary France: one nation, one ethnicity, one language. The presence of minority groups has always called this into question. The Kurds are Turkey's largest minority, and so efforts have been made to assimilate them to Turkish culture and language.

Turkey's policy of assimilating the Kurds has long been an open secret, and the international community has often been silent and totally inactive. But there have been some notable criticisms. Turkey's admission to the EU, for instance, is contingent on fairer treatment of minorities -- amongst other considerations, of course.

Nineteenth-century ideas of nationalism have been totally discredited and have no place in the modern world order. But the Turkish policy on a unitary nation-state is not the right way forward for another, more pressing reason.

Civil war in Syria, and Arab Spring instability have arguably catapulted Turkey into a position of regional leadership. But Turkey's authority would be greatly undermined by international controversy over minority rights at home -- especially if it came to dealing with the Syrian civil war in which minorities have suffered disproportionately. And many observers might seriously question the value of the Turkish constitution as a model for Arab Spring countries.

Also, talk of an independent Kurdistan grows louder. In theory, this state would be carved out of a post-civil war Syria. A hypothetical Kurdistan would not fail to make common cause with Kurds in Turkey. Turkey would therefore have to develop a coherent and humane policy dealing not only with an independent Kurdistan but also with Kurdish irredentism.

But focusing attention on Kurdish claims is not easy. Canada, along with many countries in the international community, rightfully regard the PKK as a terrorist group. This view would almost certainly prove to be an impediment in attracting widespread attention to PPK demands for language equality -- however reasonable they may seem.

Though Canada and Turkey enjoy a long history of diplomatic relations and military cooperation through NATO, Canada's influence in Turkey is limited. Though trade between our two countries is increasing, it amounted to only about $2.4 billion in 2011. It may be that all we can do is draw attention to Kurdish troubles and to the PKK led present hunger strike. We might well be the only country that could draw attention to this matter on the world stage without hypocrisy.

Canada after all is a country made up of immigrants, and it is perhaps the best example of a functioning Western multicultural society. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms has achieved a delicate balance of individual and group rights, and it could well serve as a model for Arab Spring states emerging from decades of autocratic rule.

In fact, human rights is an area Canada has an extraordinary reputation. It was John Humphrey, a Canadian legal scholar who drafted the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. And the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) principle, which asserts that other countries should step in and help if a given country's government is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens, is a Canadian idea. Michael Ignatieff and Senator Romeo Dallaire are well-known champions of it.

Could it be that R2P has a soft-power equivalent? If so, Canadians cannot ignore Kurdish demands for language equality in Turkey, and must draw attention to them on the world stage.

Co-authored with Michael Jackson Bonner

Michael Jackson Bonner is a doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern history at the University of Oxford and is a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.