Indonesia undecided on underwater heritage convention

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Despite being rich in sunken treasure, Indonesia is undecided whether to ratify a world convention that protects underwater cultural heritage, a senior official said Wednesday at a workshop for officials and academics in Jakarta.

“Indonesia still needs to carefully weigh up the benefits and consequences of ratifying [the convention],” Hari Untoro Drajat, the Culture and Tourism Ministry’s director general for history and archaeology said.
He said ratifying the UNESCO convention on protection of the underwater cultural heritage needed careful preparation, including adequate legislation, human resources, infrastructure and funding.

The convention was adopted by UNESCO in 2001, and has been ratified by 31 countries as of May this year. Cambodia is the only signatory in Asia.

According to Masanori Nagaoka, the head of culture unit of UNESCO office in Jakarta, the convention carries four main principles: The obligation to preserve underwater cultural heritage, in situ preservation preferred, no commercial exploitation, and training and information sharing.

Arief Rachman from the Indonesian National Commission for UNESCO said the third principle has been the most challenging for Indonesia.

Last month, the government, through the National Committee of Excavation and Utilization of Precious Artifacts from Sunken Ships, conducted an auction of around 271,000 artifacts, including ceramics from China’s Zheijang province and a gold sword from the Middle East, collected from a ship presumed to have sunk around 900 years ago in waters off Cirebon, West Java.

The auction was a flop with no bidders registering, but the government said it would maintain its effort to sell the artifacts, which had been excavated by a private company five years ago.

Many, ranging from royalty to academics and history enthusiasts, opposed to the auction, but the committee defended it, saying a number of unique items had been conserved.

Supratikno Rahardjo from the University of Indonesia said there were risks that the government should take if it chooses to ratify the convention.

The consequences of what he called “option two” — ratifying the convention as soon as possible as opposed to the first option of delaying it up to a certain period — include the government paying back investors the costs of obtaining permits for recovering sunken treasures.

“If it were up to us, we would like the government to take option two,” he said.

Chairijah, the director for international law at the Justice and Human Rights Ministry, said Indonesia could ratify the convention with a law or a Presidential Regulation.

Regardless of whether Indonesia chooses to ratify the convention or not, the country should stop referring to the heritage as “treasures” to be hunted and traded in, the workshop concluded.

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