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My client, the dictator

Emerging markets have always been a moral quagmire, but Libya has forced us to wade in, says Christine Murray

Building in the Middle East, North Africa and China has always been an ethical minefield, but the bloodshed in Libya this week has thrown the work of architects in totalitarian states into sharp relief, and sobered the recent zeal for commissions in emerging markets.

The events of the past few weeks have not suddenly made working in countries such as Libya, Egypt and Bahrain a dubious enterprise – we already knew there were human rights issues in these regions. Over the past ten years, building programmes in China and the UAE have been subject to intense scrutiny, from the alleged abuse of construction workers during the Dubai building boom, to fears the phenomenal architecture of the Beijing Bird’s Nest stadium would whitewash China’s abysmal human rights record.

Current events will, however, force every practice to adopt a party line and be able to explain, to clients and peers alike, why they elect to work in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq or even China, which only last year suppressed demonstrations by force.

For those engaged in designing schools, universities, hospitals or mass housing, it will be easier to explain how a well-designed social project has an intrinsic value beyond its regime. Architects are an optimistic bunch, and many will have felt that their work in Libya was helping the country move towards a brighter future. According to Snøhetta’s Kjetil T Thorsen, during the Egyptian riots their Alexandria library was protected from damage by the people, an example of how architecture can transcend regime.

Nation-building projects, luxury housing or more opaque commissions will be harder to justify. In some cases, a dearth of work in the UK may have led to an elastic ethical stance towards rogue states. Or quite simply, the elusive chance to design and build a project with an interesting brief in a new environment may have proved irresistible, and the respective practice elected to take an apolitical view.

It would be naïve and irresponsible to make a blanket statement on whether architects should undertake work under non-democratic regimes. The reality is far more nuanced, and the moral calculus too complex. It must be decided on a case-by-case basis by the senior management of each practice. Even Daniel Libeskind, who called upon architects to think twice about working in China, has accepted commissions in Hong Kong and Israel.

Whether you consider yourself to be engaged in political practice or not, undertaking work in these countries is a political act, and practices must make an informed decision on whether to accept a commission. In the age of WikiLeaks, Human Rights Watch and Google, it is not difficult to ferret out accurate information about disputed territories, social injustice and human-rights violations.

We make ethical choices every day, from choosing local produce over air-freighted blueberries, recycled paper over new. You may have avoided South African fruit during the Apartheid era, or you may have eaten its apples. The choice was, and ultimately is, yours.

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