Treaty protecting underwater cultural heritage to enter into force, UN reports

14 October 2008

Aiming to safeguard over 3 million shipwrecks and submerged ruins across the globe, the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage will enter into force in January 2009, the United Nations cultural agency reported today.

Adopted in 2001 by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) General Conference, the treaty represents an international response to the increased looting and destruction of underwater cultural heritage by treasure hunters.

The cultural heritage includes many historical sites, such as the ruins of the Alexandria lighthouse and Cleopatra’s palace (Egypt), part of ancient Carthage (Tunisia), and Jamaica’s Port Royal, destroyed by an earthquake in 1692, as well as entire landscapes and rock art caves now at the bottom of the sea.

UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura welcomed the step forward in the protection of cultural heritage.

“This represents an essential addition to UNESCO’s standard-setting apparatus. From now on, it will be possible to offer legal protection to the historical memory that is in underwater cultural heritage, thus curtailing the growing illicit trade by looters.”

The convention is based on four main principles – the obligations to preserve underwater cultural heritage, to ensure no commercial exploitation of this heritage, to promote training in underwater archaeology and to raise public awareness of the importance of sunken cultural property.

In practice the international treaty will not arbitrate ownership claims nor prejudice the jurisdiction of States, rather it will provide a framework of rules for activities directed at underwater sites.

Mr. Matsuura will convene a meeting of the 20 States Parties to the Convention – Barbados, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Croatia, Cuba, Ecuador, Lebanon, Libya, Lithuania, Mexico, Montenegro, Nigeria, Panama, Paraguay, Portugal, Romania, Saint Lucia, Slovenia, Spain, Ukraine – within one year of its entry into force and thereafter at least once every two years.


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