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Below is a blog post from one of our 2022 Human Rights Summer Research Grant awardees, Steph Zempolich, who spent the summer in Durham, researching the Uyghur genocide in China. 
To learn more about the Human Rights Summer Research Grant, click here.


While I am only three weeks into my research, with five more on the horizon, I am off to a great start exploring the current Uyghur genocide taking place in the Northwest province of Xinjiang, China. My initial research has mainly focused on Turkey’s refusal to label the killings as genocide, and how this refusal connects to Turkey’s economic and political relationships with China. This research has also led me to explore Turkey’s own past with ethnic cleansing during the Armenian genocide, and how the inability to claim responsibility and/or recognize the genocide that occurred not only affects today’s Armenians, but also the Turkish government’s unwillingness to call out China’s policies regarding the Uyghur people.

While my research has mainly consisted upon building and expanding my base of knowledge on the fundamentals of genocide and the history of the Uyghurs in China, I have also become fascinated by the methods China uses in order to justify and hide discrimination against the Uyghurs. As a result, I have been researching this topic more heavily.

I have found several Chinese government reports, including one titled “Historical Matters Concerning Xinjiang,” published by the State Council’s Information Office of the People’s Republic of China in 2019. In conjunction with current legal documents like the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law of the People’s Republic of China, these reports not only show the Chinese government's aims but also their methods of oppressing the Uyghur people. The State Council’s report was written under the guise of celebrating ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region, specifically the Uyghur population, following increasing pressure from the international community to stop its internment and genocide of the Uyghurs. However, the true aim was to deconstruct Uyghur identity and strip its citizens of their Turkish and religious heritage. They did this by arguing that religious and ethnic identities are important, but second to the importance of nationality (i.e., Chinese nationality). Additionally, while the report claims all members of different religions and ethnicities will be treated the same without the possibility of facing discrimination. The reality (based on countless published biographies and leaked published police papers) shows this to be a lie.

In addition to the fascinating new pieces of research and work I’ve come across about Uyghurs, my exploration into the foundation of human rights and genocide (specifically the Armenian genocide) has been very interesting. Thanks to the Special Collections section at the Rubenstein Library here on Duke’s campus, I have been able to access documents from Juan E. Méndez, the former U.N. Special Advisor of Crime Prevention. These documents have been very helpful in grasping what the international community’s focus and aim in terms of human rights and genocide prevention looked like in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, specifically in relation to recognizing the anniversary of the Armenian genocide. While I have learned so much already, I am very grateful and excited for the next month ahead of me and I can’t wait to see where my research takes me!