UNESCO 2001 Convention

Recognizing that underwater cultural heritage is largely undervalued, the 2001 Convention provides a common legally binding framework for States Parties on how to better identify, research and protect their underwater heritage while ensuring its preservation and sustainability. Adopted on 2 November 2001 at the 31st General Conference of UNESCO, the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage urges States to take all appropriate measures to protect underwater heritage.

Underwater cultural heritage is defined as all traces of human existence of a cultural, historical or archaeological nature which, for at least 100 years, have been partially or totally immersed, periodically or permanently, under the oceans and in lakes and rivers.

The protection and preservation of underwater cultural heritage as historical relics allow for a better knowledge and appreciation of past culture, history and science. Understanding and conserving underwater cultural heritage, a particularly vulnerable heritage, also helps us understand climate change and rising sea levels. Educational and recreational, heritage and its responsible access contribute to the construction of peaceful and united societies.

Underwater cultural heritage faces multiple threats such as treasure hunts, looting and commercial exploitation. Environmental degradation also endangers its preservation in addition to technological advances that drive coastal development and exploitation of marine resources.

Thus, the 2001 Convention is fully in line with the sustainable development objectives defined in the United Nations Agenda 2030.

The historical context of the 2001 Convention

Despite the great historical and cultural importance of underwater cultural heritage, adequate legal protection is often lacking.

This is because even the most protective national legislation is not entirely sufficient to effectively safeguard underwater cultural heritage, given its specific nature and location. Only the territorial sea falls under the exclusive national jurisdiction of a single State. However, in most cases, the jurisdiction of States is very limited.

On the high seas, there is no other State jurisdiction than that which applies to vessels and nationals of a State. Recognizing the urgent need for an international legal instrument to regulate and coordinate the protection of underwater archaeological sites and to encourage cooperation between States, the Convention was adopted at the General Conference in 2001. This international agreement specifically dedicated to the protection of underwater cultural heritage, recognizes it as part of the cultural heritage of humanity. Offering a legislative framework for protection and cooperation between its States Parties, the 2001 Convention is complementary to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

Principles of the 2001 Convention

Protection and fight against commercial exploitation

The Convention gives a key role to the preservation of underwater heritage and the natural context in which it is found. Sustainable development and the preservation of our heritage and our oceans are intrinsically linked and are fundamental issues. Understanding and conserving underwater cultural heritage, which is particularly vulnerable, helps us understand climate change, sea level rise and the cultural exchanges that have shaped our history and that of the oceans. It also helps to encourage technological and scientific progress.

The 2001 Convention considers the preservation of underwater cultural heritage in situ, i.e. in the sea, in its natural environment, as a priority option before authorizing or undertaking any intervention on underwater cultural heritage. The recovery of objects may, however, be authorized when it contributes significantly to the protection or knowledge of this heritage. Objects that are endangered or need to be researched or exhibited in a museum may be recovered under the 2001 Convention in order to enable their better preservation for future generations, provided that the Rules concerning activities directed at underwater cultural heritage, which are annexed to and form an integral part of the Convention, are respected.

The Convention contains obligations on the prevention of commercial exploitation, looting and trafficking of underwater cultural property, allowing the application of sanctions or seizures by States Parties. In particular, States Parties are obliged to take measures to :

  • Prevent the entry into their territory, trade or possession of an underwater cultural heritage object, if it has been exported and/or acquired illicitly, when its recovery has been carried out under conditions contrary to the Convention;
  • Prohibit the use of their territory by looters;
  • Control nationals and vessels and impose sanctions
  • Seize underwater cultural heritage in their territory when it has been recovered in a manner not in conformity with the Convention.

In order to guarantee its protection, the underwater cultural heritage must not be commercially exploited for transaction or speculation purposes, nor must it be irretrievably dispersed.

Art. 22 of the Convention, underlines the importance of the implementation of competent services by States Parties to protect underwater cultural heritage. The implementation of inventories in the management of this heritage is indispensable to know, protect, preserve and study the whole underwater cultural heritage found in a given territory or region.

Similarly, the 2001 Convention requires that all human remains dumped in maritime waters be given due respect.

International cooperation

The States Parties shall cooperate and assist each other in the protection and management of underwater cultural heritage, in particular in exploration, excavation, documentation, conservation and presentation.

Article 2.2 of the Convention commits States Parties to cooperate in the protection of underwater cultural heritage. Article 19 specifies the modalities of this commitment by obliging States to assist each other and to share information in order to ensure the protection and management of underwater cultural heritage. Rules 22 and 23 concerning activities directed at underwater cultural heritage in the Annex to the Convention define more specifically the conditions for activities directed at underwater cultural heritage.

Training                             

States Parties should encourage training in underwater archaeology, technology transfer and information sharing, and public awareness of the value and significance of the heritage.

No regulation of heritage ownership

The 2001 Convention does not regulate the ownership of objects or sites. Similarly, it does not interfere in any way with the delimitation of maritime zones.

Annex to the 2001 Convention

The Annex to the 2001 Convention contains Rules for activities directed at underwater cultural heritage. They are a reference in the field of underwater excavations and archaeology, setting the rules for the responsible management of this cultural heritage.

These rules include:

  • principles of project design;
  • guidelines for the skills and qualifications required of persons undertaking these interventions;
  • information on the organization of financing for excavation projects;
  • guidelines for excavation documentation; and
  • conservation and site management methodologies.

Operational Guidelines

Learning from the best practices of States Parties is essential to guide the implementation of the 2001 Convention. Operational Guidelines guide and strengthen the implementation of the Convention by identifying the best ways to achieve the objectives of the Convention. The Operational Guidelines of the 2001 Convention were adopted by the 4th and 5th sessions of the Meeting of States Parties by its Resolutions 6 / MSP 4 and 8 / MSP 5.

States Parties to the 2001 Convention

To date, the 2001 Convention has been ratified by 71 countries.

The ratification of the 2001 Convention by States where the looting of underwater cultural heritage and the destruction of its context are progressing rapidly, is part of the international cooperation dynamics of UNESCO and the Convention.

The Convention entered into force on January 2, 2009, for those States that have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession in accordance with its Article 27. It enters into force for any other State three months after the deposit of its instrument of ratification, acceptance or accession.

States Parties shall:

  • prevent the commercial exploitation and dispersion of underwater cultural heritage;
  • guarantee that this heritage will be preserved for the future and in situ;
  • assist the tourism industry involved;
  • enable capacity building and knowledge exchange; and
  • enable effective international cooperation

Competent Services

Article 22 of the 2001 Convention establishes that in order to ensure that the 2001 Convention is properly implemented, States Parties shall establish or strengthen, as appropriate, competent authorities to:

  • to establish, maintain and update an inventory of the underwater cultural heritage and
  • to ensure the effective protection, preservation, enhancement and management of underwater cultural heritage,
  • and the research and education required.

States Parties shall communicate to the Director-General the name and address of the relevant underwater cultural heritage authorities.

National Reports

National reports concerning the state of underwater cultural heritage and its protection and the development of underwater archaeology in the different countries are available. These reports are provided by States Parties as well as by Member States for consultation and on a voluntary basis, and have no official status.

Group I : Europe and North America 

Romania (EN)

Turkey (EN)

Netherland (EN)

Montenegro (EN)

Greece (FR)

France (EN)

Cyprus (EN)

Bulgaria (EN)

Spain (EN et SP)

Group II : Eastern European States

Ukraine (EN)

Group III - Latin American and Caribbean States 

Group IV - Asian and Pacific States

Sri-Lanka (EN)
Republic of Korea (EN)

Group Va - African States

Angola (EN)
Congo (FR)
Côte d'Ivoire (FR)
Gabon (FR)

Group Vb - Arab States

Egypt (EN)
Jordan (EN)
Lebanon (FR)
Libya (EN)
Tunisia (FR)