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Sochi, Ethics, Rights, and Engineering

Sochi, Ethics, Rights, and Engineering
If someone asked me to design something for Russia today, my knee-jerk reaction would be to say ‘No‘. – But would that be right, or even Professional?

There’s been a lot in the news this week about international Human Rights, with the UN formally criticising China over its Human Rights record, and the Sochi Winter Olympics beginning to compare unfavourably to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Whilst people discuss boycotts on Vodka, ask whether we should accept investment from China and put pressure on Coca Cola; I find myself thinking of the international nature of our engineering firms.

After signing the Coca Cola petition, I began to wonder: If someone asked me to design something for Russia today, my knee-jerk reaction would be to say ‘No’. – But would that be right, or even professional? Acknowledging, as I must in this age of slacktivism, that whilst the images and press of human right violations in the country are disturbing; I’m never going to fly there and actually do anything about it- and therefore the only protest I have is to withhold my skill.

Rights and Professional Conduct

In attempt to separate the politics from the responsibility, I’m going to establish two positions; That the ICE Code of Professional Conduct, Rule 3, does reflect how Civil Engineers should behave, and that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is universal. While it should be appreciated both are only convention, I’d like to hope the majority of people consider them axiomatic.

For all of you who don’t know Rule 3 of the ICE CoPC:

All members shall have full regard for the public interest, particularly in relation to matters of health and safety, and in relation to the well-being of future generations.

Rule 3 In Full

Members should take account of the broader public interest – the interests of all stakeholders in any project must be taken properly into account, including the impact on future generations. This must include regard for the impact upon the society and quality of life of affected individuals, groups or communities, and upon their cultural, archaeological and ethnic heritage, and the broader interests of humanity as a whole.

So, do we, as Civil Engineers, have the responsibility to consider Human Rights when we design and build? Rule 3 is not prescriptive; but are Human Rights not an “interest of all stakeholders”? I certainly consider them to be an interest of mine. It is therefore not an extrapolation to reiterate Rule 3 to limit a Professional Engineer to:

  • Not build anything that would violate the rights of others.
  • Not build anything in a country where the rights of others are violated.

The first point is arguably the clearest cut; whilst the architects who built Auschwitz are unlikely to have defenders, the architect behind the 1936 Berlin Olympic Stadium is not considered with scorn.

The second point, however, is more controversial; and as with anything greyed in the complexity of ethics comes in multiple degrees of qualifiers:

  • Not to allow a structure to involve workers who’s rights are violated
  • Not to allow a structure to be built within a system that violates people’s rights
  • Not to allow a structure to be built for a society that violates people’s rights

Arguably the CoPC encompasses all three points; however there is always scope of interpretation and such issues are rarely black and white.

Interpreting Rule 3

Could you design or build a structure for a country where your death was a matter of Government policy?

That an engineer should not allow a structure to involve workers who’s rights are restricted is the most easily defended view. If you designed a structure in the UK that was dangerous to build the CDM Regulations alone would question your professional conduct. Although Rule 3 mentions health and safety; it is as a particular to the broader public interest, which we’ve established must include Human Rights (which in turn, arguably, includes safety in the workplace). So by extension, if you design a structure that will be built in a framework without due regard for Human Rights, are you failing in your duty as a professional engineer?

In a situation where the rights of those directly affected (i.e. the workers and operators) are respected, but the peripheral stakeholders (for example, the surrounding community) are not, do engineers still have a professional responsibility? A current example of this scenario are the Ogoni Oil Fields; but the alleged forced-evictions surrounding the Beijing Olympics are just as relevant. In these cases Rule 3 makes no exceptions for indirect stakeholders, going so far as to specifically identify that communities are affected by Civil Engineering works and a professional engineer should take account of this.

The most far reaching interpretation of Rule 3, that engineers should not allow a structure to be built for a society that violates people’s rights, is notable in that it is proactive.

Where the two less encompassing implications of Rule 3 allow for the easy identification of victims, the final interpretation excludes the structure from societies where Human Rights are violated. At its very best it prevents engineers from building luxury hotels amongst cities of torture, but at its worst it holds vital infrastructure for ransom.

Out of the three resolves, it is the last I find most interesting. Could you design or build a structure for a country where your death was a matter of government policy? Statistically, however, the answer seems to be yes; there must be women, for example, designing for countries where female emancipation is an imprisonable offence. But then, could you design something to be built in a country where someone else’s rights were being violated? Arguably that is the essential dichotomy of the situation.

When the act is simply profiting from a society that violates the rights of others, you have to ask: Is this professional? Are you giving due regard to “the broader interests of humanity as a whole.”

As I’ve hinted at already, however, ‘withholding’ is a complex action. The situation is clearer if your decide not to design for personal reasons or spite; but I imagine the main drive would be as a mechanism for change, and that is where the nature of our work complicates things.

This is because Civil Engineers build infrastructure; indeed it is often touted that engineers save more people than doctors. Looking at vital infrastructure alone the MSF argument for indiscriminate treatment comes into play.

Complications and Judgement

Arguably, however, the highest-profile of international engineering contracts could not be classed as ‘life-or-death’ infrastructure (where the act of withholding is tantamount to ransom). In this case the ambiguity is relieved; the act is simply profiting from a society that violates the rights of others. Is this professional; are you giving due regard to “the broader interests of humanity as a whole.” By now, however, I’m sure you’ve though to yourself ‘but it’s not as simple as that’.

Rights Universal?

Deliberately this article has been about the broad term “Human Rights”; if I’ve learnt one thing from researching this essay, however, it’s that Rights are rarely Universal. Indeed, for the sake of all greenhouses and a our flying stones- look up the violations of your own country here.

At this point it’s worth looking back at Rule 3, which I suspect was intended to reflect the issues of sustainability that surround engineering works; rather than a responsibility towards Human Rights. Considering, therefore, that engineers often have a hard enough time measuring the sustainable effects of their works, it seems dubious that we are truly equipped (or indeed the best people) to judge the violation of rights that surround our structures. This is why I didn’t want to focus on the political discussion on what the rights of humans are, but instead the responsibilities of Civil Engineers to protect them.

Assuming that a workable definition can be found, a more proactive solution could be to enforce a framework in which all professional engineers work; a ‘CDM’-like regulation at institutional level, rather than relying on countries to define their own laws first (consider that the majority of rights violations are legal in the countries where they are applied). This would not be an unprecedented solution- the ICE, for example, has already taken a clear stance on bribery.

Possibly both the strongest and weakest argument for dismissing these additional responsibilities as auxiliary to the clause is the safety and creation of jobs. Firms focusing on premium structures are unlikely to afford excluding markets, and clients will be unwilling to support the cost of implementing what, to them, are above and beyond the usual regulations just to meet the designer’s view of rights. Accepting this, however, makes these Human Rights violations just an unfortunate by-product of the job (like working for Apple).

I suspect the majority of scenarios applicable to this debate are for ‘design only’ contracts. Whilst a contractor that builds internationally and respects varying standards of rights is more obviously responsible for the effects; the reach of a designer is less clear. There’s an argument that if you sent your drawings out, as you would within the UK framework of CDM regulations, etc., you’ve already met your professional duty of care.

The construction of the Fisht stadium; has been dogged with reports of forced evictions, migration worker exploitation, and repression of speech.

But can a designer be responsible for the rights of the work force? The crux of this matter is that if a design is to be undertaken in a country where it can be expected that rights will be violated by the construction (at least, in the most lenient interpretation, of workers) then Rule 3 has been broken and no professional engineer should engage the client. Once again the only tool of negotiation is withholding; it becomes a term of using a professional designer that the design is executed in a manner that does not violate rights.

Sochi: A Test Case

From this foundation it seems apt to look at the Sochi Olympics. By no means am I picking on Populous or Buro Happold; indeed there are innumerable examples of engineering firms allegedly breaking this interpretation of Rule 3- Hyder’s involvement with the Burj Khalifa, and Arup with the Beijing Olympics, are both the subject of similar criticism for the treatment of the migrant workers. But it’s Sochi that’s in the news right now, so here goes…

Concerns that the Sochi Olympics would include forced evictions, abuse of migrant workers and repression of civil society were being raised in 2008.

The design for the Fisch Stadium was undertaken circa 2009, four years before Human Rights became such a public issue for the Sochi Olympics. That’s not to say that Russia was perfect before then (in 2007 22.5% of all pending cases for the European Court of Human Rights were directed at Russia). It was also (perhaps obviously) prior to the construction of the stadium that has been dogged with reports of environmental and Human Rights violations; indeed Seb Coe spoke out about this only last week.

If you want to know more about the allegations surrounding Sochi, check out:

Human Rights Watch: The Sochi Olympics

Favourably allowing that a complete design was issued in goodwill prior to the evictions and reports of emigrant worker exploitation, there have been a number of design changes during construction. In fact Populus architect Lavelle is quoted in the Moscow Times as visiting “just about every week while overseeing the changes to Fisht”, Happold are also continuing to work in Russia.

Whilst the companies were (I hope) unaware during the initial engagement, the current allegations are not without their predictors. In fact concerns over forced evictions, abuse of migrant workers and repression of civil society were being raised in 2008. Rule 3 would therefore, at least, suggest that the professional engineer should engage with caution, and a view to ensuring that “broader interests of humanity as a whole” were respected during the execution of the design.

Neither company appears to have condemned, or commented, on the exploitations that are alleged to have occurred as a result of their structures (as highlighted in the Human Rights Watch reports) and interestingly, from what I can see, the NCE has yet to even mention them. Depressingly I would have at least expected an altercation when these allegations came to light (circa September of 2012). I know I would be livid if anything I designed was the subject of such violations.

Such detachment of design and exploitation during execution that we, as an international industry, appear to show reminds me forcibly of the famous quote:

“‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department’, says Wernher von Braun.”

Take a moment to comment. Let me know if you agree- am I being unfair, do you think the stance is naive?

I don’t often do this, but this week’s post has taken a lot of time and research to write; so much so that it ended up coming out a week late. The place of engineers and their responsibility towards Human Rights, however, is a complex and, dare I say it, righteous one.

I’d therefore really like you to take the time and submit a comment, below; let me know if you agree- am I being unfair, do you think the stance is naive; do you work for Buro Happold or Populous, have you designed something for a country where your own freedoms wouldn’t have been protected, or on projects where rights were violated?

I’ll never change the world with a single blog post, and frankly I’m not even sure what it should be turned into- the best I can hope for is to start a bit of discussion.

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  1. thomas ashworth

    I think the interpretation should be more closely limited by the project stakeholders i.e. people somewhat more directly affected by the project. in some cases this may be the whole nation, but more often it is a local community.

    based on the supposition that we should never work for or design something that might be constructed in a country with human rights violations: how does development work sit in that? engineers constructing bridges and roads for development work in countries that have violations would also be affected.

    • Indeed; that’s why I tried to differentiate between ‘essential’ and ‘premium’ infrastructure.
      In the majority case, though, it’s the exploitation of the workforce and damage to the local community that’s been the somewhat ignored problem. Extending it out to the behaviour of the nation as a whole can arguably wait, if indeed it’s something engineers should care about at all.


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