An article at the BBC website looks at some of the issues involving shipwrecks in international waters:
When a ship sinks and lives are lost, it is a tragedy for the families involved.
For the relatives of the dead, the ship becomes an underwater grave but as the years pass the wreck can become a site of archaeological interest.
In recent years technological innovations have allowed commercial archaeologists, decried by some as “treasure hunters”, to reach wrecks far below the surface.
[. . .]
In November 2001, the Unesco Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage was finally adopted.
But 10 years on, it still has not been ratified by the UK, France, Russia, China or the US, and commercial archaeologists continue to locate wrecks, remove their cargoes and sell them off.
“The convention has not been ratified yet because of the issues it throws up about the cost of implementing and policing it,” a spokesman for the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport, says. “Discussions continue within government, but ratification is not currently seen as a priority.”
It’s telling that the convention has not been ratified by five of the nations most likely to have both the technology and the interest to take on major underwater archaeological or salvage projects.
Robert Yorke, chairman of the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee, argues the real reason the government, and the Ministry of Defence in particular, are not ratifying the convention was becayse of a misplaced fear about the implications for British warships around the world.
The internationally recognised concept of “sovereign immunity” means nations should not interfere with foreign warships.
Under the Military Remains Act 1986, a number of British warships around the world are protected, including several ships sunk during the Falklands conflict. Also covered are several German U-boats in UK waters.