10.05.2016 - Culture Sector

Member States take stock - Anniversary meeting on Underwater Convention

An information meeting at UNESCO’s Headquarters held on 9 May 2016 marked the 15-year anniversary of the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, and reviewed its implementation to date.

In 2001, the UNESCO General Conference responded to the urgent need to preserve all traces of human existence that lie or have lain underwater and have a cultural or historical character by adopting the 2001 Convention.  It aims to ensure the safeguarding of underwater heritage and fight looting and commercial exploitation of underwater sites by, among other things, providing for the seizure of objects salvaged illegally commercially exploited.

Having entered into force in 2009 and now with 55 States Parties, the Convention “has become a global reference point for standard setting in preserving underwater cultural heritage, but it can only reach its full potential through universal ratification”, according to Mechtild Rossler, Director of the UNESCO Heritage Division, who opened the session and stressed the importance of more States joining the Convention and the development of synergies with UNESCO’s other Culture Conventions concerning World Heritage Sites and illicit trafficking of cultural objects.   

Acknowledging that much has been achieved, the meeting took stock of the impact the Convention has had, particularly in terms of the Convention’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB), whose twelve internationally recognized experts assist countries wishing to protect their underwater heritage.  Alejandro Palma Cerna, Chairperson of the Meeting of States Parties to the Convention, proclaimed that “the negative impacts of pillage, trawling, unethical salvage, commercial exploitation, industrial development and the exploitation of the ocean resources are affecting conservation. Governments must create the legal framework and build national capacities to put in place and enforce mitigation measures. The Advisory Body has proven its significance, making a difference in sites that require urgent attention and strengthening the safeguarding of underwater heritage that is our common legacy.” 

Within the framework of implementing the Convention, archaeologist Michel L’Hour (France) discussed the STAB 2015 emergency mission concerning heritage off the shores of Madagascar that had been damaged by an American treasure hunter.  The mission revealed that the alleged discoveries and proclaimed high tech conservation techniques of the treasure hunters were misleading, geared towards getting publicity and making a movie. “The scientific study and conservation of a wreck can only be done by an archaeology research expedition having proper standards. Governments must do more to stop treasure hunters from damaging sites because archaeologists can’t work after looters have destroyed data” he said.  


Archaeologist Xavier Nieto Prieto (Spain) in presenting the STAB emergency mission to the wreck of the San José off the coast of Panama, emphasized the need to raise awareness, and for States to invest in building up their scientific teams.  “Looters have been acting for years with total impunity but they now know archaeologists of the STAB will reveal the truth about their actions with scientific reports, and investors won’t want to finance illegal excavations that scientists and UNESCO will denounce” he said.

The valuable role of the 2001 Convention to contribute to peace and reconciliation was discussed, particularly with the example of a teaching manual on underwater heritage related to the First World War.  The meeting also stressed the impact of Climate Change on the underwater heritage, particularly in view of rising sea levels and accelerating erosion, which call for targeted preventive measures.

For all the topics discussed, the need for international cooperation on the Convention remains crucial.  To prepare for the future, a Working Meeting for States Parties to the Convention took place just after the Information Session, and examined a revised Ratification and Implementation Strategy.  Further work for the Convention includes the seventh meeting of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Body at UNESCO Headquarters on 10 May 2016 and the meeting of the UNESCO UNITWIN Underwater Archaeology Network on 11 and 12 May 2016.

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