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Taiwan: Law on Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage Adopted

(Nov. 30, 2015) The main legislative body of the Republic of China (on Taiwan), the Legislative Yuan, adopted a new Law on Underwater Cultural Heritage Preservation on November 24, 2015. (Draft Law on Preservation of Underwater Cultural Heritage (Nov. 24, 2015), Legislative Yuan website (in Chinese) (scroll down to item 6 and click on hyperlink to access text of law).)  According to the Minister of Culture, Hung Meng-chi, the legislation is the first of its kind directed at safeguarding Taiwan’s submerged archaeological assets. (ROC Passes Underwater Cultural Heritage Bill, TAIWAN TODAY (Nov. 25, 2015).)

The Law was drafted in conformity with the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage and was developed due to the fact that Taiwan’s current Cultural Heritage Preservation Law lacks the concept of protection of the cultural heritage of the sea. (Legislative Yuan Passes the Law on Preservation of Underwater Cultural Heritage, Draft Fulfills Legalization of Our Nation’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Preservation Work, Ministry of Culture website (Nov. 24, 2015) (in Chinese); Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage 2001 (Nov. 2, 2001, entered into force on Jan. 2, 2009), United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) website; Cultural Heritage Preservation Act (May 26, 1982, as last amended Nov. 9, 2011), Laws & Regulations Database of the Republic of China website.)

In Hung’s view, the new law will not only “help advance local research in maritime history” but also further “the increasingly important field of undersea archaeology.” He added, “[g]iven Taiwan’s prime location in some of the world’s most important waterways, the nation requires a comprehensive legal framework to ensure the preservation, protection and management of its rich undersea cultural heritage resources.”  (ROC Passes Underwater Cultural Heritage Bill, supra.)

The Law is in seven chapters with 44 articles. The chapters cover general provisions, attributed rights and international cooperation, activities involving underwater cultural assets, modern preservation of underwater cultural assets, excavations in the sea, penalties, and supplementary provisions. Sea excavations will not be permitted unless: the nation’s historical position or identity is involved; lack of the underwater cultural asset might affect the completeness of the interpretation of the history of mankind; it is not sufficient to protect the seas without excavation, because major commercial market value is involved; there is a need to carry out underwater cultural heritage investigation and research; without the excavation, conservation, protection, or management will be insufficient because of a dire situation or an existing change in the environment; or there are other situations in which the competent authority deems it necessary to excavate the waters. (Draft Law on Preservation of Underwater Cultural Heritage, art. 34.)

The Ministry of Culture has stated that, to avoid underwater cultural assets being made subject to improper excavation, theft, damage or other destructive acts, the new Law imposes criminal or administrative penalties for such acts, with the nature of the penalties dependent on the degree of the acts’ severity. The maximum punishment is five years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of NT$10 million (about US$307,000).  (Legislative Yuan Passes the Law on Preservation of Underwater Cultural Heritage …, supra; Draft Law on Preservation of Underwater Cultural Heritage, art. 37.)  A “Supplementary Resolution” appended to the Law states that the central organ in charge (i.e., the Ministry of Culture) may designate a specialized agency for underwater cultural heritage, exclusively devoted to carrying out all types of underwater cultural heritage protection and management work.  (Draft Law on Preservation of Underwater Cultural Heritage, Supplementary Resolution, item 1; Legislative Yuan Passes the Law on Preservation of Underwater Cultural Heritage …, supra.)