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UNESCO organizes scientific conference on underwater cultural heritage of First World War

A scientific conference on underwater cultural heritage of the First World War has been held in Bruges, Belgium. The conference, organized by UNESCO with the support of the Government of Flanders, was followed by commemorative events. These initiatives aimed to highlight the historical and scientific importance of this particular heritage.

A comprehensive inventory of ships sunk during the First World War remains to be drawn although major battles were fought at sea during the conflict, in which the belligerents also engaged in submarine warfare for the first time in history. More than 10,000 shipwrecks from that time lie at the bottom of the ocean. It is known for example, that close to 250 British ships and 850 auxiliary vessels were sunk during the conflict with their crews, representing the loss of nearly 74,000 Royal Navy seamen and 15,000 merchant navy sailors. Hundreds of ships and nearly 200 submarines were lost on the German side.

Although it is an invaluable historical source, underwater cultural heritage of World War I has so far been the subject of little research. It is at risk, threatened by corrosion, commercial exploitation, and plunder, its preservation is at risk.

This vulnerable heritage is about to come under the scope of UNESCO’s 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. The Convention designates “all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or completely, periodically or continuously under water for at least 100 years” as underwater cultural heritage.

The two day scientific conference brought together experts of underwater heritage from around the world. It was an opportunity to take stock of World War I underwater heritage, examine threats to its safeguarding and tackle the challenges of conserving large scale metal wrecks.

First Secretary of the Azerbaijani National Commission for UNESCO Gunay Afandiyeva delivered a report at the event.

Adopted in 2001, the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage aims to such heritage comparable protection to that given to cultural heritage on land. Forty-eight States have ratified the Convention to date, undertaking to preserve underwater heritage, ban the commercial exploitation and looting of sites, and combat illicit trafficking in looted objects. Another goal of the Convention is to promote the exchange of information about this heritage and raise awareness to its importance. The Convention does not, however, arbitrate disputes between different stakeholders concerning ownership of underwater heritage.