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UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage

Adopted by the UNESCO General Conference in 2001, came into force in 2009

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In general, the Convention seeks to protect underwater cultural heritage (“UCH”) by controlling activities that may directly or incidentally harm UCH, and authorizing activities directed at UCH only when done in accordance with professional archaeological standards and practices set forth in the Convention.

Underwater Cultural Heritage - 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.

UCH includes sunken cities or structures, shipwrecks, human remains, shipwrecks, aircrafts, other types of vehicles, and prehistoric objects. The geographic scope of the Convention includes UCH located in all maritime zones, including beyond national jurisdiction.  


  • Provides an international legal instrument to regulate and coordinate the protection and preservation of UCH. 
  • Imposes the obligation to protect and preserve UCH for the benefit of humanity and to take actions accordingly. 
    • The Convention also stresses the consideration of in situ preservation of UCH as the first option, however, recovery of objects may be authorized under the Convention in a manner ensuring their long-term preservation. Prohibits the commercial exploitation of UCH. 
  • Imposes the obligation to respect all human remains located in maritime waters.
  • Fosters collaboration, coordination, and cooperation between State Parties in protecting UCH (including, collaborating in the investigation, excavation, documentation, conservation, study and presentation of UCH; cooperating in the provision of training). 
  • Encourages a State Party to enter agreements with other State Parties for the protection of UCH in conformance with the Convention, including entering into agreements which may provide better protection than those provided under the Convention. 
  • Imposes in general a notification and reporting obligations on UCH found or discovered. (Varying levels of obligations and procedures are defined depending on the maritime zones). 
  • Provides for information sharing between the State Parties.
  •  Outlines a set of international scientific standards and practices for the protection and responsible recovery of UCH (“the Rules”).  
  • Requires raising of public awareness regarding the importance and protection of UCH.
  • Provides for training in underwater archaeology and conservation techniques.
  • Additional obligations imposed on a State Party include: controlling entry of illicitly exported or recovered UCH, preventing the use of their territory for activities contrary to the Convention, preventing its nationals and vessels flying its flag to engage in activities contrary to the Convention, imposing sanctions, and providing for seizures and disposition of UCH for the public benefit. 

The Convention, including the Rules, is considered by many nations, archaeologists, and legal experts to provide the minimum standards and requirements for protecting UCH. 


The Convention is only binding to countries that have consented to be bound under the Convention (“State Parties”).  Currently, there are only 63 State Parties.

  • The Convention is only binding to countries that have consented to be bound under the Convention (“State Parties”).  
  • The Convention is only binding to countries that have consented to be bound under the Convention (“State Parties”).  Currently, there are only 63 State Parties.
    • Several countries that have pioneered underwater archaeology or are traditional maritime nations, however, are not members (e.g., United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Norway, and Russia).  A majority of State Parties are from Central America and Caribbean regions. 
For the Convention to be an effective international treaty, ratification of more countries, particularly maritime nations, is needed. 
  • General objections raised by non-State Parties regarding the Convention: 
    • Treatment of sunken warships and other State vessels subject to sovereign immunity
    • “Creeping jurisdiction” by coastal States
    • Overly broad definition of UCH
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