The UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage applies to all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been under water for at least 100 years. Thus, 15 April 2012 marks the moment from which on the Titanic wreckage is protected under the Convention.
RMS Titanic was a British passenger ship that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on 15 April 1912 at 2.20 am after colliding with an iceberg. Its sinking caused the deaths of 1,514 people. Its wreckage was discovered on September 1, 1985, during a joint French/U.S. expedition lead by Jean-Luis Michel of the French Research Institution for the Exploration of the Seas (IFREMER) and Robert Ballard. It was found approximately 340 nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada 3,800 meters beneath the surface. The Titanic disaster led to major improvements in maritime safety, like the establishment of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) in 1914, which still governs maritime safety today. It also contributed to the establishment of the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
While there have been many efforts undertaken to legally safeguard the Titanic the 2001 Convention’s application is for the moment the only real solution for offering it full protection through its cooperation mechanism. The Titanic lies in international waters, i.e. outside of the national jurisdiction of any State. States have in that area only jurisdiction over the vessels flying their own flag and their own nationals and can therefore not fully protect the wreck each on their own. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea offers some protection under its Article 303 (1). It leaves however salvage and finder rights untouched, so that a commercial exploitation of the Titanic remains possible. The Titanic Agreement, another international text, has not yet entered into force and has also a smaller scope as it is only open for ratification by four States.
The 2001 Convention is the international community’s response to the destruction of submerged archaeological sites by commercial treasure-hunters and was drafted in the wake of several major exploitation and pillage cases. It reflects the growing recognition of the need to ensure the same protection to ancient shipwrecks as that already accorded to land-based heritage. It does not only fight the illegal pillage of sites, but also the legal commercial exploitation in making it illegal. The Convention’s newly accorded protection for the Titanic is triggered by the passage of time, not by the inscription on a list.
For the Titanic wreck its protection means that all States Parties to the 2001 Convention will prohibit the pillaging, commercial exploitation, sale and dispersion of the wreck and its artifacts. They will take all measures in their power to protect the site, and to ensure that proper respect is given to the human remains still to be found on it. As an answer to the lack of a State’s exclusive jurisdiction over the wreckage area, the 2001 Convention provides for a State cooperation system, by which States inform each other of any potential activity concerning ancient shipwreck sites, like the Titanic, and cooperate to prevent unscientific or unethical interventions. State Parties to the 2001 Convention will accordingly sanction violations of protection measures and seize illicitly recovered artifacts. They will also close their maritime ports to ships supporting any activity directed at the wreck which is not in conformity with the Convention. The Convention expressly calls for the respect of human remains on the sites. It does however also expressly allow the public access to observe underwater cultural heritage. While the Convention recommends considering first the in situ protection of artifacts, this is not a dogma. A recovery can be authorized to protect the artifacts, for scientific reasons or public enjoyment.
The 2001 Convention has been already ratified by 41 States. Others, like France, are preparing ratification. A full protection of the Titanic wreck can of course only be ensured when more, ideally all States, ratify the 2001 Convention.
According to the UNESCO 2001 Convention all ancient wreck sites should be treated with respect and be regarded as maritime memorials to the people who perished when the ships sank. They should be researched instead of serving profit interests. The sinking of the Titanic is an especially visible event, but many other shipwrecks are also memorials to exceptional human tragedies, and should be considered archaeological sites.