Underwater Cultural Heritage in the Pacific

Mr Elia Nakoro with Dr Hans van Tilburg at the Honolulu UCH Conference (c)UNESCO/NOAA

Marine and Coastal Sites Hold Historical and Cultural Information

Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH), undisturbed in situ, is often better preserved than land-based cultural heritage, holding invaluable information for historians, archaeologists, and scientists to reconstruct past cultures.  UCH are also valuable for tourism, provided the tourism is soundly managed from an environmental protection and heritage safeguarding perspective.

The Convention for the Protection of UCH (2001)

The UCH Convention establishes a protection regime for UCH by maritime zone determined by UNCLOS and provides a comprehensive coverage of UCH regardless of its location, greatly extending the legal protection of UCH.  The UCH Convention recognises the right of the coastal states to prohibit or permit activities directed to UCH in their EEZ and continental shelf.  The UCH Convention does not regulate the ownership of UCH.  Given the responsibility entrusted to coastal states, especially in the developing world, the UCH Convention emphasises the importance of UCH-related capacity building, technology transfer and information sharing, as well as awareness raising of the significance of UCH.

By joining the UCH Convention, countries can (i) achieve UCH protection at the same level as for land-based cultural heritage, (ii) protect UCH from looting and commercial exploitation for trade or speculation, (iii) ensure comprehensive protection of UCH through a state cooperation system.

By joining the UCH Convention, Parties pledge to protect UCH against looting and commercial exploitation and to apply the provisions of the UCH Convention and the Rules in its Annex as internationally recognised guidelines for UCH protection.

At present, no Pacific SIDS are parties to the UCH Convention, which can provide international cooperation mechanisms and information sharing networks.

The Pacific UCH Programme

The Pacific UCH Programme was launched at The first regional workshop on the Pacific underwater cultural heritage held in Solomon Islands in 2009. UNESCO publication "Underwater Cultural Heritage in Oceania" (2010) presents an overview of UCH in the Pacific spanning the history from the Stone Age to the Atomic Era.  Diverse UCH ranging from traditional fish weirs, ships of explorers, and WW II related wrecks showcase strong connection to culture and identity.  

UNESCO assists Pacific SIDS to build capacity through workshops and the UNESCO University Twinning and Networking (UNITWIN) programme for maritime archaeology. The 2nd Asia-Pacific Conference on Underwater Cultural Heritage (Honolulu, 12 - 16 May 2014) was another milestone in the regional cooperation in UCH. Some 135 UCH experts and professionals from 27 countries got together to present papers and engage in discussions. 

SAMOA Pathway Outcome Document (2014)

SAMOA Pathway Outcome Document adopted at the 3rd UN International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) (Samoa, 2014) acknowledged the SIDS provides support to SIDS's efforts to conserve their valuable UCH (paragraph 54) and invites SIDS to become parties to the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (paragraph 58).

Need of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) strategy for UCH safeguarding

UCH is susceptible to natural disasters, and disturbance can create pollution from underwater wrecks.  In response to concerns caused by an oil spill due to the disturbance of a WW II wreck, the USS Mississinewa in FSM waters, the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP) in cooperation with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) launched the Pacific Ocean Pollution Preventive Programme (PACPOL) in 1999 with the aims to maintain, protect, and enhance the quality of coastal and marine environments by minimising ship-sourced pollution.  PACPOL developed a comprehensive database of WW II-related UCH, containing information on 3,855 wrecks.  At the request of the Solomon Islands, SOPAC conducted a risk assessment of WW II-related UCH in Iron Bottom Sound in Solomon Islands.  However, the risk is still present, without sufficient disaster response mechanisms.

Pacific SIDS must strengthen their capacity to safeguard UCH for sustainable development by developing a policy with DRR strategy to manage risks including, inter alia, unexploded ordinance, pollution by oil spills from WW II-related UCH, and pressures including deep sea mining, looting, and recreational diving that may impact environments, livelihoods, and the safety of communities and visitors.

Factsheets (2017)

Model for a National Act on the Protection of Cultural Heritage

The text gives an example of a comprehensive law on the protection of cultural heritage, encompassing land-based as well as submerged immovable heritage as well as movable objects.  It is based on internationally accepted standards for heritage protection, in particular on the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. But also on the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Expert and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property).  A model export certificate elaborated by UNESCO in cooperation with the World Customs Organisation (WCO) is added to it.  The formulations used are suggestions only and in no way binding.  Please consider that better formulations might be available and more appropriate for the national context.  Please also consider the inclusion of regulations on natural heritage, if applicable.


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