Kenya prepares to ratify UNESCO’s 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Culture Heritage

© C. Grondin

Kenya aims to guard its vast invaluable cultural heritage artefacts which lie on the Indian Ocean sea-bed, against exploitation. Implementation of the 2001 Convention supports the development of strategies to harness its potential and utilize heritage for national and regional socio-economic development.

For over a decade, Kenya has demonstrated its leadership in underwater archaeology and heritage in the Eastern Africa region, with the National Museums of Kenya and its decorated underwater archaeologists Caesar Bita – recipient of the Golden Trident D’oro 2019 International Award for Underwater Archaeology, -  spearheading its achievements.  Kenya is now preparing for ratification of the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Culture Heritage, so as to exploit opportunities and explore its utilization for sustainable cultural tourism and economic development.

Underwater cultural heritage includes “all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character, which have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years”, such as historic shipwrecks and sunken cities. It is increasingly subject to treasure hunting, pillage, industrial damage and destruction. The 2001 Convention aims to harmonize its protection with that accorded to cultural heritage on land. It is compatible with the 1982 Law of the Sea (UNCLOS Articles 149 and 303) and contains no regulations regarding the ownership of heritage or national jurisdiction at sea.

On 23 October 2019, the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage hosted a stakeholders meeting at the National Museums of Kenya, to raise awareness of the 2001 convention and its benefits, as well as chart a way forward towards ratification of the Convention in Kenya.

Speaking during the meeting, the Director of Culture, Dr. Kiprop Lagat said “Kenya, as a State Party  to  UNESCO   has  already commenced   work  towards   the  ratification   of this  Convention,   a Cabinet   Memorandum   to  this effect  has been  developed.  We are looking forward to the ratification as this will undoubtedly   open  opportunities    that  will  enhance   the protection  of our nation's   underwater   cultural  heritage  while enhancing  our cultural tourism  potential.”

During the meeting, a steering committee of key stakeholders was named, to ensure adherence of the process of ratification, including public participation and consultation with the parliamentary committee, in accordance with regulations enshrined in the Treaty Making and Ratification (Amendment) Act, 2018. Installed and chaired by the parent ministry, institutions appointed in this committee comprise the National Museums of Kenya, the Kenya National Commission for UNESCO, The Attorney General’s Office, Ministry of Water, Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa.