The UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage and its Context

The UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of  the Underwater  Cultural Heritage  is the  foremost  international  legal  reference  for  the protection   of underwater cultural heritage.

It was drafted by the international community to prevent the destruction of submerged archaeological sites, to regulate cooperation among States and  to harmonize international research standards. Above all it was created to  harmonize the protection of submerged  heritage, which includes ancient  shipwrecks and sunken ruins, with the protection already accorded to  cultural heritage on land.

The 2001 Convention  does  rebut  pillage  and  the  commercial  exploitation  of heritage for individual profit, defines the scope of heritage and embraces  the  concept that heritage is a common asset encouraging responsible  public access, knowledge sharing and public enjoyment. Altogether the  Convention creates common criteria and best practice standards for the protection of  underwater cultural heritage to promote its safeguarding.

The Convention is based on the  common work of an international community  of  scientists  and  State experts, which began in 1976 and resulted in four   intergovernmental meetings reuniting the then 193 Member States of UNESCO. It was adopted by the UNESCO General Conference in 2001 and  is  now open for ratification.  This  adoption replaced  the  otherwise usual  signature of a treaty for ratification  by  the  drafting  States  and  by  it  the  States  engaged  to  not  act  against  the  spirit  of  the  Convention from  the adoption onwards. More than 50 States have since ratified the Convention and are fully bound by its regulations and definitions. More are in the process of preparing ratification. The majority of professional associations of archaeologists and underwater archaeologists have equally officially endorsed the 2001 Convention and its definition of underwater cultural heritage. Other legal texts have been inspired by the definitions of the 2001 Convention and it is itself in line with other legal treaties, such as UNCLOS.

The 2001 Convention’s Definition of Underwater Cultural Heritage

The UNESCO 2001 Convention defines in its Article 1:

For the purposes of this Convention:

1.  (a)  “Underwater  cultural  heritage”  means  all  traces  of  human  existence  having  a  cultural,  historical  or  archaeological  character  which  have  been  partially  or  totally  under  water,  periodically  or  continuously,  for  at  least  100  years such as: 

(i)  sites,  structures,  buildings,  artefacts  and  human  remains,  together  with their archaeological and natural context; 

(ii)  vessels,  aircraft,  other  vehicles  or  any  part  thereof,  their  cargo  or  other  contents,  together  with  their  archaeological  and  natural  context;  and 

(iii) Objects of prehistoric character. 

(b)  Pipelines  and  cables  placed  on  the  seabed  shall  not  be  considered  as  underwater cultural heritage. 

(c) Installations other than pipelines and cables, placed on the seabed and still in use, shall not be considered as underwater cultural heritage. 

The UNESCO 2001 Convention’s definition of cultural heritage does not contain any significance benchmark, as it can be different at the local, national or international level. Significance is also subject to change. It can be created and enhanced through research and through raising public awareness. The more a site is publicized and discussed in the media, the more significant it becomes. It also important to provide immediate protection, before requesting a significance check for a site, which for the instance, suffers from pillaging. The States that drafted the text of the UNESCO 2001 Convention and adopted it,  have  taken  this  into  account  in  guaranteeing  a  blanket  protection. 

The  2001  Convention  does  not  regulate  ownership  questions,  but  focuses  solely on heritage values. 

Note on repetitive items: The definition used by the UNESCO 2001 Convention does not contain a benchmark of representativity or singularity. The fact that an item is found, while a similar has already been discovered, does not change its character as cultural heritage under the Convention (for instance in the case of coins).  The  reasoning  behind  is  that  also  repetitiveness  can  be  very  valuable  scientific  information,  for  instance  on  the  size  of  trade,  vehicles,  armament  or  the  exhortations  put  on  a  population  in  order  to  obtain  the  artefacts  in  question. 

Note  on  cargoes: The  2001  Convention  cites  in  its  Article  1  explicitly  as  example  of  underwater  cultural  heritage  “vessels,  aircraft,  other  vehicles  or  any   part   thereof,   their   cargo   or   other   contents,   together   with   their  archaeological  and  natural  context...”.  With  this  the  Convention  stresses  explicitly the heritage character of the cargoes of vessels, without making any differentiation of their value, purpose or initial destination. Any per se exclusion of 'commercial loads consisting of materials in their raw state, serial movable who have had exchange or tax value such as coins and bullion, and industrial loads'  from  the  identification  as  cultural  heritage  is  not  in  line  with    the  2001  Convention’s definition.




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