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International Regime to Safeguard Underwater Cultural Heritage

Updated: Feb 22, 2022


Since time immemorial, humans have traveled the distance through seas. The vessels that carried them, wove the threads of mankind’s interaction. These magnificent adventures on the High Seas often face tragedy and shipwreck. The waters worldwide conserved the remains of their misfortunes. Priceless human footprints are part of our common heritage in the same way as heritage on land. As per the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (UNESCO Convention), underwater cultural heritage means all traces of human existence having a cultural-historical or archaeological character that has been partially or underwater periodically or continuously for at least 100 years. Shipwrecks, sunken ruins, and underwater caves have long been protected and secured under the waves. However, advances in curiosity and technology have made the underwater world more accessible. Therefore, it has brought these precious archaeological sites within reach. Archaeologists are now finding unique traces of the history of humanity in the waters of the world.

Convention for Protection

The lack of domestic legislation was of little consequence in the past but today, it is a major source of danger to these valuable sites. While many countries have acted to strengthen the protection of their heritage on land, their underwater heritage remains, for the most part, unprotected. The temptation to pillage and sell recovered treasures now exposes underwater heritage to the threat of destruction.

The UNESCO Convention is designed to afford the same protection to archaeological sites underwater as to Heritage Sites on land. It proposes a framework for collective action against pillage and destruction and it also promotes underwater archaeology as well as public awareness. The objectives of the UNESCO Convention underscore means of recognizing and protecting the submerged traces of human endeavors as common heritage. In furtherance of its mission, UNESCO invites the international community to participate in the task of building a collective memory. This is the sole purpose of the UNESCO Convention on plain reading. It aims neither to regulate the ownership of underwater cultural heritage nor to interfere in any way with the sovereign rights of states. In its Preamble itself, the Convention notes that nothing in the UNESCO Convention shall prejudice the rights jurisdiction and duties of States under international law.

The UNESCO Convention, under Article 3, relies on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It borrows the normative structure of zones of sovereignty and navigation. Concepts enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea enable all states over their territorial waters and beyond their rights and obligations. These diminish gradually towards the high seas where states have jurisdiction only over their vessels and Nationals. The UNESCO Convention observes and does not modify the existing Law of the Sea within this legal framework. It provides for cooperation among states to find legal solutions to protect underwater cultural heritage. Each member state of the UNESCO Convention must undertake the responsibility to make use of its sovereign rights to prevent the looting of archaeological sites and should cooperate with other States Parties to this end. These are enshrined in Articles 2(10), 9, and 11.

Beyond territorial waters, the necessary cooperation is facilitated by the designation of the coordinating state responsible for monitoring the safeguarding actions and interventions on behalf of all cooperating State Parties. The UNESCO Convention is a legal instrument of great importance and an irreplaceable ally. The Convention prohibits the plundering of what it identifies as the common heritage of humanity. The waters link civilizations since they serve to carry ships that connected communities around the globe. The remains at the bottom of the Seas are therefore of particular importance to the world community. Moreover, each wreck is a time capsule providing a dated snapshot of a precise moment of a civilization- a peerless archival record. The UNESCO Convention stipulates that preference should be given to the preservation of underwater cultural heritage in its original historical context artifacts. The UNESCO Convention also encourages international cooperation and provides for the training of responsible non-intrusive access to observe or archive underwater cultural heritage. The net result of this is aimed to create public awareness. One might acknowledge the UNESCO Convention as useful took to achieve dual purposes. Those purposes being the prevention of damage and protection of underwater cultural heritage

Conservation of Underwater Cultural Heritage in China

China boasts abundant marine resources, with over 18,000 kilometers of coastline, more than 300 million square kilometers of maritime territory, and 30 million square kilometers of inland waters. In China's long history of several thousand years, it has enjoyed not only its highly developed inland culture but also a remarkable maritime civilization. The ancient Chinese were the first to invent and the first to use both the compass and watertight bulkheads thus leading the world in important maritime technologies. In addition, the marine Silk Road, a sea passage that in ancient times linked various regions and civilizations

made great contributions to the advancement of human society.

China is therefore rich in underwater cultural heritage. On October 20th, 1989, the Chinese government, deeply concerned about the conservation of the nation's underwater cultural heritage, formally promulgated and subsequently implemented regulations of the People's Republic of China concerning the Administration of the work for the protection of underwater cultural relics. This law made China one of the world's first nations to enact a special law for underwater cultural heritage. China initiated its first underwater archaeological excavations during the 1980s. The Government quickly established related institutes which carried out surveys on underwater cultural relics and excavated several important shipwreck sites. The first professional underwater archaeological team produced several impressive initial results, including the excavation of significant cultural relics in recent years. China has been strengthening and developing its underwater cultural heritage management system further under the UNESCO Convention and other international conventions. They aim towards the implementation of a more standardized and law-abiding approach to underwater cultural heritage protection and research.

China's underwater cultural heritage has discovered many new locations of underwater cultural heritage sites through surveys and offshore waters of 11 coastal provinces. One such example is the Paracel Islands and other inland provinces. With the development of cultural heritage conservation in China, the promotion and protection of underwater cultural heritage have gone hand in hand. Underwater cultural heritage is now much more common following the unified arrangements of the state administration of cultural heritage. As a country with an ancient civilization, China is suitable to make an even greater contribution to the conservation of mankind's common and precious underwater cultural heritage.


Scientific advancement has escalated protection campaigns of that which lies in the waters. While this heritage is so valuable for the memory of humanity, it is also a powerful vehicle for intercultural dialogue on many properly excavated, stabilized, and protected sites. Underwater museums are being designed and underwater archaeological trails already exist in the United States of America, Italy, Canada, Israel, Australia, and the Caribbean. Other forms of presentation giving the wider public access on land to underwater heritage already exist and continue to be developed.

The protection of underwater monuments is inspired by the same rationale that led to the protection of monuments on land. Traces of humanity's past must be handled with the respect. They deserve And thus must be spared from the ravages like war which are likely to ruin them. The underwater cultural heritage forms part of the heritage that humanity will leave for future generations. Hence, we are bound to protect it. In other words, it is the common heritage and legacy of humanity.


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