03.04.2012 - Culture Sector

Titanic now protected by UNESCO. Director-General calls for remembrance and protection

Railing of the Titanic ©NOAA

The Convention 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 when the Titanic wreckage will be protected under the Convention.

The Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage was adopted by the UNESCO General Conference on 2 November 2001. It contains basic principles for the protection of underwater cultural heritage, a detailed State cooperation system, and widely recognized practical rules for archaeological work on submerged sites. The Convention focuses on preservation and State cooperation, but does not regulate the ownership of wrecks nor does it redefine maritime zones.

The Convention 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 when the Titanic wreckage will be protected under the convention.

This landmark legal instrument is the international community’s response to the destruction of submerged archaeological sites by commercial treasure-hunters. It also reflects the growing recognition of the need to ensure the same protection to ancient shipwrecks as that already accorded to land-based heritage.

For the Titanic wreck the newly accorded protection will mean that all States Parties to the Convention will prohibit the pillaging, sale and dispersion of the wreck and its artifacts. They shall 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. Since the Titanic wreck is located in international waters, no State has exclusive jurisdiction over the wreckage area. As a general rule, States only have jurisdiction over their own vessels and State nationals in these waters. The 2001 Convention provides for a State cooperation system, applicable in international waters, 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.
On the occasion of the Titanic anniversary, the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, expressed her concern about the ongoing destruction and pillaging of thousands of ancient shipwrecks worldwide. She stressed that the concern about the commercial exploitation of the Titanic was not a unique case, even if it was an exceptionally visible one.

While the efforts to find an acceptable solution for the artifacts recovered from the Titanic have been immense, according to the UNESCO 2001 Convention all ancient wreck sites should be treated with much attention 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 event that lingers in humanity’s memory. But many other shipwrecks are memorials to exceptional human tragedies, and should be considered archaeological sites. The precious underwater cultural heritage that the relics of the vessels constitute should be protected.
The protections offered by the 2001 Convention are also reflected in the International Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS Titanic (the “Titanic Agreement”, not yet in force), an agreement concluded in 2003 by Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Regulations related to the protection of shipwrecked vessels from looting and unwanted salvage, which are reflected in the Annex to the 2001 Convention, are similar to those contained in the Titanic Agreement and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Guidelines for Research, Exploration and Salvage of RMS Titanic.

The wreckage of RMS Titanic 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 Dr. Robert Ballard. It was found approximately 340 nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada 3,800 meters beneath the waters in the so-called High Seas, i.e. international waters.

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