Thoughts on the UNESCO Convention:
A perspective from Inside the Process

UnderWater Magazine - January, 2001
by Greg Stemm

In the last issue of Underwater Magazine, Eke Boesten presented an excellent overview of the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. Since that article was written, we have received word that the next meeting of experts, at which the UNESCO Convention will be negotiated, is scheduled for the last week of March and first week of April 2001. I have been privileged to have been included on the United States delegation for the past three years, and as a result, I believe I have a unique perspective on the process and the U.S. role in the negotiations behind the Convention.

Not surprisingly, I have a strong opinion about many of the issues. Once the United States delegation has decided on a position, however, all delegation members steadfastly support that decision at the UNESCO meetings. In a public statement, such as this article, I need to make it clear that the opinions expressed here are entirely my own, and may have little to do with the position of the United States. That being said, I am impressed at the great lengths the United States delegation goes to in order to assure that all opinions are expressed, considered and incorporated into our position. The United States has the largest delegation every year in Paris - by far. That suggests that no other country goes to such great lengths to make sure that the views of all constituents of the shipwreck resource are considered.

For the summer 2000 meeting in Paris, our delegation consisted of 9 experts and two permanent delegates to UNESCO. The delegates included archaeologists and a museum expert, as well as military, NOAA and National Park Service representatives. Both the private sector and public sector are represented, and last year a representative of the Maritime Law Association was included. And then of course, there is the sole private sector shipwreck explorer on any delegation, me.

There has been some public criticism of the United States delegation from several different sides. Some of the more conservative archaeologists have been dismayed by the U.S. delegation's support of certain private sector positions. On the other hand, some treasure hunters have been critical of the process for the opposite reason. Having been involved in the process since the beginning, I can tell you that the United States delegation has done an excellent job of considering the issues from virtually every perspective. You may or may not be happy with the UNESCO draft Convention as it stands, but the U.S. has steadfastly stood up for the reasonable positions of every constituency of the shipwreck resource, including the private sector.

As with any diplomatic initiative, there has been a lot of give and take. I only wish that the entire international negotiation was as effective as the discussions and negotiations within the U.S. team. I have learned a lot from the impassioned views of some of my colleagues whose views tend toward a restriction on commercial activity. By the same token, I believe that some of our open and frank discussions about the positive aspects of private sector activity have been incorporated into the views of some our other delegates.

In the management of any resource, it is impossible to make every constituency entirely happy. In the fairest solutions, all parties may find that they will have to give a little in order to develop a workable regime, and this Convention will be no different.

Americans in Paris

To truly appreciate our role in the negotiations over the convention, it is important to understand that the United States is an anomaly at UNESCO. On the one hand, we are not even members of UNESCO. Our current position there is that of an observer. We are reminded of our non-membership on a regular basis, and it definitely reduces our influence at the expert meetings I have attended. A whole article could easily be devoted to the political nuances of our relationship with UNESCO, but suffice it to say that our position there is controversial, to say the least.

One important issue is the relative importance of the United States' (and a small number of other countries whose citizens possess advanced underwater technology) signatures on the Convention. As it relates specifically to the Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, I can tell you that the United States, and a small group of other like-minded countries, are often seen as the only proponents of the private sector as a legitimate constituency of the shipwreck resource. With the huge majority of countries vehemently opposed to any private sector access, why should these nation's opinions even be considered? One realistic consideration is that a Convention that they refuse to sign would likely be significantly weakened as an international instrument. When you consider that a huge percentage of the world's advanced ocean technology is controlled by this handful of countries, and that the majority of the world's salvors and shipwreck explorers call them home, a convention that holds no sway over all these businesses will fail to address or influence the behavior of this significant group.

The interesting politics of UNESCO negotiations are reflected in a recent directive from the United Nations General Conference (Resolution 26 of the 30th Conference) which requires the Convention chairperson to make every effort to reach "consensus". With 228 delegates from 87 member states and observers, you can imagine that it is pretty difficult to reach consensus on issues of substance. This concept was debated extensively at the beginning of the last meeting in Paris, and is of obvious importance to countries that have major issues of concern that are not widely held. It is important to continue negotiations until an outcome upon which everyone can agree is adopted. If not, there is the danger that you'll end up with a Convention that is simply not acceptable to some countries that have a significant interest in underwater cultural heritage. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea took ten years to negotiate, with years spent discussing fine points in order to achieve consensus. It would be unfortunate if the current UNESCO Convention is pushed through peremptorily without attempting to reach consensus.

The Issues Simplified

You may need an international law degree to read and thoroughly understand the issues in the Convention as it is currently drafted, but there are a couple primary issues that will potentially affect the readers of this magazine.

By and large, the Convention has good intentions that I support wholeheartedly. A much-needed and laudable goal is the protection of our valuable underwater cultural heritage throughout the world from unwarranted destruction and damage. Unfortunately, the current draft seems to encourage the elimination of legitimate private sector activity.

Some of the rules in the current draft are so far-reaching that it could be argued that they would prevent an offshore contractor from receiving any compensation for working on legitimate shipwreck projects even as government or institutional contractors. This concept seems to have as its basis the view that there can be no good science, nor even legitimate technical work, that is supported by the profit motive.

The convention also seeks to restrict private sector activity by preventing the sale of anything that falls under the category of underwater cultural heritage, whether it has any archaeological significance or not. This means that tons of gold or silver bullion from shipwrecks could never be sold. This is ironic, since such proceeds could be used to help fund the exploration and investigation of other archaeologically significant shipwrecks. No matter how hard I try, I just can't see why there should be a bona fide and respected trade in common ancient coins, while making it illegal to own a duplicative coin that came from a shipwreck. Sorry, but it just doesn't make sense, and it eliminates a viable source of funding for perpetually cash-starved archaeological institutions.

There are many other issues relating to jurisdiction, dispute settlement and definitions that were addressed in detail in Ms. Boesten's article in the past issue, but the two simple issues above are the ones that will prevent a legitimate underwater archaeology and shipwreck exploration contracting business from developing. To the members of ProSEA, ADC and the readers of this magazine, that is something you really need to think about.

I would like to reiterate that the views expressed above are mine alone, and are not meant to represent the views of the United States delegation in any way. However, if I want to leave you with any perspective on the UNESCO negotiation process, it is that I am proud of the way that our delegation has worked hard to represent every constituency that has an interest in the shipwreck resource. It is truly amazing to watch the consensus that has evolved from a wide range of views within our delegation.

I can also tell you that the opinions of the public count a lot in the meetings of the delegation. For this reason, I would encourage everyone (no matter what your views) to attend the next public meeting that is held on this issue, or submit your opinion in writing when the next solicitation for input is posted. Every opinion expressed there is considered, so please make yours heard.

UnderWater Magazine is the bimonthly journal of the Association of Diving Contractors International, Inc. It is published by Doyle Publishing Company for the commercial diving, ROV, and underwater industries. Entire contents © 1993 - 1999 Doyle Publishing Company. Reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission is prohibited.

©2001 Greg Stemm

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