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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