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Protecting Underwater Cultural Heritage in Caribbean Small Island States

The UNESCO Kingston Cluster Office for the Caribbean and UNESCO Headquarters in collaboration with the St. Kitts and Nevis National Commission for UNESCO organized a 3-day Sub-regional Meeting on ‘Underwater Cultural Heritage Protection Laws for the Caribbean Small Island States’ which was held over 25-27 June 2013 in St. Kitts.

The meeting – which was attended by delegates from Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Aruba, the British Virgin Islands, St Lucia, St Kitts & Nevis and St Maarten – set out to strengthen professional capacities at local level to enable the practical implementation of the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, by facilitating the drafting, harmonization and adaptation of national laws for the protection of cultural heritage.

The meeting was facilitated by UNESCO’s underwater cultural heritage expert, Ulrike Guerin, and Culture Programme Specialist, Himalchuli Gurung as well as the international legal expert from Australia, Professor Craig Forrest.

The meeting underlined the potential of underwater cultural heritage which encompasses all traces of human existence that lie or were lying under water and are of a cultural or historical importance. Recognizing the urgent need to preserve and protect such valuable and vulnerable heritage, UNESCO pioneered the development of the 2001 the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. The 2001 Convention is UNESCO’s critical tool that was designed to improve the legal and operational protection of underwater cultural heritage. It sets high protection and research standards and facilitates cooperation.

Whilst it is recognised that many Caribbean states possesses some of the world’s richest submerged heritage, dating from colonial naval battles between the French, British, Dutch and Spanish from the 16th to 18th centuries as well as several sunken cities and many submerged pre-Colombian sites, few of these countries have laws sufficiently protecting this heritage or have developed an underwater cultural heritage policy. In addition, most Caribbean States face the daunting challenges of on-going pillaging or commercial exploitation attempts.

The St. Kitts meeting reached a number of outcomes in terms of taking the 2001 Convention forward on the ground, notably it encouraged the competent national authorities to review and analyse the respective State’s existing national laws protecting the cultural heritage, with a view to adopting a model law, elaborated before and in the meeting, and as amended as appropriate for each State.

The participants also urged to carry out awareness-raising, archival research, mapping and educational activities on the importance of protecting all cultural heritage including especially underwater cultural heritage.

Special stress was put on the need for all OECS and CARICOM States in the Caribbean, to ratify the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

On the outcome of the St. Kitts and Nevis Sub-Regional Meeting on Underwater Cultural Heritage Protection Laws for the Caribbean Small Island States, Dr David P. Doyle, Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of St. Kitts-Nevis to UNESCO, remarked, “Clearly, this has been a milestone in terms of galvanising the Eastern Caribbean States to, map out a tangible path forward in strengthening the local legislative environment.   I believe that, on the basis of the accompanying core expertise from UNESCO, measures can expeditiously be put in place,  not only to stem  the illicit removal of valuable artefacts lying at the bottom of the seas across the Caribbean, but also in transforming the way we approach policy development relating to underwater cultural heritage protection in our sub-region”.