16.03.2018 - Culture Sector

First Cultural Heritage Site to be Protected in International Waters

©Soprintendenza del Mare

Italy has notified UNESCO of the discovery of several highly threatened underwater cultural heritage sites on the Skerki Banks, located in the international waters between Sicily and Sardinia (Italy) and the coast of Tunisia.

Italy has notified UNESCO of the discovery of several very important cultural heritage sites – ranging from more than 2000 years old shipwreck remains to modern shipwrecks from the World Wars - on the Skerki Banks, located in the international waters between Sicily, Sardinia and Tunisia. These banks lie on a highly frequented maritime route, used since antiquity, and were also the location of a famous sea battle in the second World War. The archaeological sites and their natural environmental context at Skerki Banks are today at risk. They are impacted by uncontrolled fishing and non-regulated passage of tankers and container ships as well as by industrial work. The notification by Italy will now trigger the protection of these sites through the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

This case is of the great overall interest as it will allow to create the first example of the protection of heritage in international waters. The heritage found in the Skerki Banks will be, from now on, protected by all States Parties of the 2001 Convention. These States will work together to make sure that any impacting activity carried out in this area, ranging from seabed dredging over investigation to trawl fishing, will have to respect the archaeological sites. A coordinating State will be responsible for authorizing activities and may for instance make sure that Heritage Impact Assessments are undertaken. Destructive behavior will be sanctioned.  

Any State Party may declare to the Director-General of UNESCO its interest in being consulted on how to ensure the effective protection of this underwater cultural heritage on Skerki Banks. Declarations will need to be based on a verifiable link to the underwater cultural heritage concerned, and particular regard will be paid to the preferential rights of States of cultural, historical or archaeological origin. All interested States will then be involved in the consultations on how best to protect the Skerki Bank underwater cultural heritage sites.

This news comes in a moment, in which especially shipwrecks from the World War I and II times are being heavily pillaged, some dozens even having recently disappeared completely from the ocean floor, having been grab dredged for the metal. Of special concern was in this regard, that these historically important, large-size wrecks often contained still the remains of many hundreds of victims.

The UNESCO 2001 Convention is the only global treaty effectively dealing with the safeguarding of underwater archaeological sites also in international waters. States Parties commit themselves to take the appropriate measures to protect also the submerged cultural sites found outside their national territory. Overall, the Convention sets scientific guidelines for heritage protection, fosters underwater archaeology and encourages international cooperation. This will on the long term enable the public to enjoy submerged heritage and will stop the currently ongoing destruction and illicit trafficking of underwater cultural heritage. The Convention seeks moreover to prevent damages being done by industrial works carried out in the seabed, trawling or natural disasters.

As the technology to reach the depths of our Oceans advances, the archaeological sites found in the seafloor in international waters are being threatened. As more Member States ratify the 2001 Convention, the international community gets closer to offer universal juridical protection to all underwater sites wherever they are found.

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