5 April 2012 – The wreckage of the passenger liner Titanic will now be protected by a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) convention that seeks to safeguard wrecks, sites, decorated caves and other cultural relics underwater.
Until now, the RMS Titanic was not eligible for protection under the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, as the treaty only applies to remains submerged for at least 100 years. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the tragedy that occurred on the night of 14 April 1912, when the ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank.
UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, voiced her satisfaction that the Titanic could now be properly safeguarded. At the same time, she expressed concern over the damage and looting of the countless ancient shipwrecks that new technology has made accessible.
“The sinking of the Titanic is anchored in the memory of humanity and I am pleased that this site can now be protected by the UNESCO convention, ” she stated in a news release issued by the Paris-based agency. “But there are thousands of other shipwrecks that need safeguarding as well, ” she added. “All of them are archaeological sites of scientific and historical value. They are also the memory of human tragedy that should be treated with respect. We do not tolerate the plundering of cultural sites on land, and the same should be true for our sunken heritage.” She called on divers not to dump equipment or commemorative plaques on the Titanic site, which is located at a depth of 4, 000 metres off the coast of Newfoundland. No single State can claim the site because the wreck is in international waters. States only have jurisdiction over wrecks lying in their own waters and flying their flag.
From now on, States parties to the UNESCO convention can outlaw the destruction, pillage, sale and dispersion of objects found at the site. They can take all possible measures within their power to protect the wreck and ensure that the human remains there are treated with dignity. In accordance with the 2001 convention, they also have the authority to seize any illicitly recovered artefacts and close their ports to all vessels undertaking exploration that is not done according to the principles of the treaty. To date, 41 States have ratified the convention, which entered into force in 2009.
Besides shipwrecks, the convention aims to protect such sunken historical sites as the ruins of the Alexandria lighthouse and Cleopatra’s palace in Egypt, part of ancient Carthage in 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.