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Effective Protection Needed to Underwater Cultural Heritage

Over the last century, archaeological sites on land all over the world have received much attention as source of information on history of human civilizations. However, the oceans, which cover the large part of our planet, still retain many of their secrets without getting exposed to the world. Hence the richness of the world's underwater cultural heritage is often underestimated. It is well known that there are cities which have been entirely swallowed by the sea and there are thousands of ships which have perished at sea.

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Ruins on the sea bed

Underwater Ruins of AlexandriaThese ruins lie on the sea bed safely without the notice of anybody. They provide testimony to the various periods and aspects of human civilization and history. There is also undiscovered knowledge under water, proving travel routes, exchanges, prehistoric life and also heritage lies outside of the territorial waters of the country of origin.

During the recent past it has been revealed that there are threats to Underwater Cultural Heritage in many ways such as; pillage, commercial exploitation, industrial work, tourist promenades, oil drilling, metro and auto route crossing in channels or with bridges, recovery of soil or building of artificial islands, trawling and also due to climate change and pollution.

Ruins of Alexandria

Ancient Civilization

As per the UNESCO reports it is estimated that over three million undiscovered shipwrecks are spread across the ocean. However, people are aware of the famous vessels which have perished in the ocean such as armada of Phillip II of Spain, the Titanic, the fleet of Kublai Khan etc through books and films. Similarly, there are remains of countless ancient buildings submerged underwater. All these are considered as underwater cultural heritage. They provide testimony to the various periods and aspects of our history.

Shipwrecks or remains of ancient buildings and cities submerged underwater retail many stories about the cruelty of the slave trade, the ferocity of wars, the impact of natural disasters or the peaceful exchange and inter-cultural dialogue between far away regions. Hence recognizing underwater cultural heritage is very vital in the efforts of gathering historical information on human civilization.

Although commercial exploitation brings small immediate profit, in comparison to long term major benefits for tourism, urban development and science, protection of UWCH has been neglected for decades. Heritage is a rare and non-reproducible asset. It can be a major economic draw for a region.

With the advancement of science and technology shipwrecks and underwater ruins are becoming increasingly accessible. Therefore, underwater cultural heritage has attracted increasing attention from both scientific community and the general public. To scientists it represents an invaluable source of information on ancient civilization and historic seafaring. To the public at large, it offers an opportunity to further develop leisure diving and tourism. Above all, UWCH is an integral part of the cultural heritage of humanity and a particularly important element in the history of peoples, nations and their relations with each other concerning their common heritage.

The UNESCO Convention - 2001

It has been recognized that national laws and pre-existing international law provide no sufficient answer to protect Underwater Cultural Heritage. The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, adopted by the UNESCO General Conference in 2001, intends to enable State Parties to better protect their underwater cultural heritage. It harmonizes the protection of underwater heritage with that of land-based sites. The Convention guarantees co-operation among States, but also among scientists worldwide.

The Convention sets high standards for the protection of UWCH with a view to preventing its being looting or destroyed. Its standard is comparable to that granted by other UNESCO Conventions or national legislation on cultural heritage on land, and yet specific to archaeological sites underwater. This includes a large variety of sites, like ancient shipwrecks, submerged structures and buildings, human remains or traces in submerged caves or sunken prehistoric landscapes and villages.

"Underwater Cultural Heritage is used to mean "all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally underwater, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years….." (Art 1. Para 1(a) of the Convention) the 2001 Convention while seeking out basic principles for protection of UWCH, provides practical guidelines for dealing with such heritage.

What benefits can States derive from ratifying the UNESCO 2001- Convention

It helps to protect underwater cultural heritage from pillaging and commercial exploitation and achieves legal safeguarding whenever site is located.
The convention brings protection to the same level as the protection of land based sites and enables states parties to adopt a common approach to preservation and ethical scientific management.
State Parties benefit from cooperation with other State Parties in practical and legal terms.
The Convention provides effective professional guidelines on how to intervene with and research underwater cultural heritage sites. While UWCH is increasingly attracting the interest of the public and of archaeologists, it has also become the focus of interest by commercial enterprises intending to exploit submerged archaeological sites to sell the retrieved artefacts for their own profits. They do so with the lack of awareness of the cultural value of the concerned sites
The convention will ensure that the precious UWCH will be protected and conserved by its States parties. It sets a legal framework for the related measures. Also the convention contains regulations that permit the prevention of an immediate danger threatening submerged archaeological sites, including in particular looting. It has been reported that 41 countries have already ratified the 2001 - Convention.

Underwater Cultural Heritage of Sri Lanka

According to the inscriptions found across the country, the naval history of Sri Lanka goes back to third Century BC. As the country is situated where all shipping routes in the Indian Ocean belt, substantial evidence is there for under water cultural heritage. A programme of under-water archaeological excavation and conservation of Maritime Archaeological Objects of Dutch origin was commenced in 1990s and this initiation has turned into a major training and conservation project of Maritime Archaeology in Sri Lanka and in South Asia. The formal establishment of the Maritime Archaeological Unit in Galle provides the basis for a structural Maritime Archaeological capacity in Sri Lanka, which is an important condition for developing future activities to excavate and preserve the numerous maritime archaeological treasures located around the island.

The Maritime Museum of Galle exhibit objects recovered from underwater ruins or shipwrecks. It is expected to establish another Maritime museum in Trincomalee shortly. The Department of Archaeology has planned to undertake new underwater survey projects in the coastal areas of Manthai, Gratebass (Kirinda), Kalpitiya and Trincomalee in addition to the Godawaya Underwater Archaeological Project.

By joining the convention the country can benefit in many ways Underwater Cultural Heritage Fund is also proposed to provide international assistance for capacity building and for the projects aimed at the implementation of the 2001 - Convention. Further, joining the convention will enable Sri Lanka to share best practices on the protection of underwater cultural heritage.

UNESCO has already trained 321 persons on protection of UWCH in 81 countries since 2007. Although Sri Lanka has not yet ratified the Convention Sri Lankan archaeologists have also been exposed to the training programmes conducted in Thailand.

The government of Sri Lanka has already taken steps to ratify the 2001 - UNESCO Convention on UWCH. In order to ratify the convention, it is necessary to obtain the political consideration of the desirability of the ratification at the national level.

Ministry of National Heritage has submitted a Cabinet Memorandum and Cabinet has decided to obtain the observations of the Ministry of Fisheries and Ministry of Defence in this regard. Once the necessary observations are obtained, it is necessary to follow the national authorization process to allow the executive authorities; ie. Parliament to declare the consent of the State to be bound by the Convention.

Being an island which has enormous potential of UWCH, Sri Lanka can reap a lot of benefits by joining the 2001 Convention. Ratification of the 2001 Convention does not oblige the government to any obligatory financial contribution. The harmonisation of national laws with the convention might however be needed. Also it is possible that any reservations and declarations made by a State joining the 2001 Convention can be stated in a letter accompanying the instrument of ratification.

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