Now ratified by twenty States, the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage will enter into force on January 2, 2009. The Convention, adopted in 2001 by UNESCO’s General Conference, is designed to help preserve cultural heritage by safeguarding marine archaeological sites and submerged shipwrecks.
The growing threat posed by looting, combined with unintentional damage and negligence from fishing, exploitation of sea-bed resources and major shore-line and offshore constructions, constitutes a great loss to the study of the history of civilizations. Furthermore, legal efforts to protect underwater heritage sites have lagged behind laws protecting cultural heritage sites on the ground. By drafting this treaty, UNESCO sought to correct this imbalance and provide a framework for cooperation to help preserve underwater history and cultural heritage for future study.
The need for the Convention is starkly clear in the Asia-Pacific region, which, with its rich history of maritime commerce, hosts many shipwrecks. The contents of shipwrecked vessels, such as the Tek Sing, which sank in the waters off Indonesia in 1822, have been auctioned off and irretrievably dispersed. By attempting to guard against further harm to cultural heritage, the Convention supports the regional pillars of UNESCO’s efforts in the Asia-Pacific region, including “extending international protection to endangered, vulnerable and minority cultures and cultural expressions.”
While the treaty provides a framework to address the problem, there are practical obstacles to overcome before it can be implemented, including a scarcity of trained underwater archaeologists. This is a particularly pressing need in the Asia-Pacific region, and it should be addressed urgently to help ensure the treaty’s effectiveness.
So far, Cambodia is the only country in the Asia-Pacific region to ratify the treaty, though all Member States agreed that its Annex, which presents detailed guidelines concerning activities directed at underwater cultural heritage, should be accepted and applied as the reference document for interventions concerning underwater cultural heritage.
For more information, please visit UNESCO’s Bankgok’s Underwater Cultural Heritage in Asia-Pacific Waters project site. For information about the efforts of other regions, please see UNESCO’s Underwater Cultural Heritage site.