08.02.2019 - Culture Sector

Cooperation in international waters – first information meeting for the protection of the Skerki Banks

The first Information Meeting on the protection of submerged archaeological vestiges found on Skerki Banks, located in international waters in the Mediterranean Basin, took place on 6 February 2019 with representatives of the Mediterranean States.

UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage establishes a system of international cooperation in international waters, i.e. those within the exclusive economic zone, the continental shelf and the Area. This system is based on information sharing and a joint cooperative effort for the protection of underwater cultural heritage.

UNESCO was informed by Italy of the discovery of the Skerki Banks in early 2018, which launched the process of the international cooperation in international waters within the framework of the Convention.  Four States Parties to the Convention, i.e. Italy, Spain, France and Tunisia, expressed their interest to be consulted on how to ensure the effective protection of the site. Tunisia has announced that it will be the Coordinating State, as the submerged archaeological features are located on the Skerki Banks, part of the Tunisian continental shelf.

The Skerki Banks are distinguished by their remarkable historical and archaeological richness. They contain archaeological remains of exceptional historical, artistic and cultural value, with their five Roman wrecks dating from a period between the 1st century BC and the 4th century AD. The Skerki Banks were also the scene of the Skerki Bank naval battle on 2 December 1942, during the Second World War.

This case is of great interest for the protection of underwater cultural heritage, as it creates the first example of heritage protection in international waters, highlighting the innovation and relevance of the 2001 Convention. An aspect underlined by the Tunisian Ambassador at the opening of the meeting, who was "exalted to live such an initiatory moment, a true legal baptism" offering an opportunity to "act for the interest of humanity” in a such a “multilateral, friendly and virtuous operation”. More than a case study, this process is a real opportunity to set an example of good practices on how to cooperate for a common goal of protection in international waters.

The Convention is the only global treaty that truly concerns the safeguarding of underwater archaeological site in international waters. The Information Meeting brought clarifications on the site and the cooperation mechanism for protecting the underwater archeological remains. Particular attention was paid to the clauses relating to the consultation process, notably those promoting cooperation for the protection and preservation of underwater cultural heritage in the interest of humanity and through the convergence of States Parties’ respective means and capacities.

The Ambassador of Italy, representing the State that initiated this process at the rostrum, highlighted the symbolism of such international convergence "which characterizes all the efforts that have been made at UNESCO for many years to affirm the importance of culture and heritage". Italy is "ready to work with Tunisia and all Member States wishing to be consulted to launch this process for the general interest", recalling that special interests are left aside in favor of the interest of humanity as a whole.

Tunisia, as Coordinating State, will hold a technical and scientific consultation meeting in in Tunis spring 2019 to discuss the measures for the protection of the Skerki Banks and organize this unprecedented cooperation between States in international waters.




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