Underwater archaeologist Peter B. Campbell has a very interesting opinion piece in the New York Times about how archaeological claims are being used as political weapons in sovereignty disputes. He explains:
For decades, global powers have been engaged in a race to exploit lucrative marine resources, from oil to fisheries to control of strategic waterways. But they have faced a challenge: How can a country claim new territory despite the restrictions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea? It turns out that “historical ties” to resource-rich regions can conveniently help to contravene international law.
At issue is how archaeological research is being injected into political rhetoric on issues such as claims of sovereignty in the Arctic, in the South China Sea, and over Crimea. Campbell writes:
China’s deputy minister of culture, Li Xiaojie, put it bluntly: “Marine archaeology is an exercise that demonstrates national sovereignty.”
Russia has followed suit. In 2011, when he was prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin made headlines by retrieving two ancient ceramic jars from a shipwreck at Phanagoria, the ancient Greek city that is 10 miles from Crimea. The media cast it as a publicity stunt, but alarm bells sounded within the archaeological community. Mr. Putin’s political allies had invested $3.5 billion in research at Phanagoria, a submerged harbor with Roman-era shipwrecks. And while Phanagoria was the site of Greek colonies, Russian nationalists have adopted its ancient kings as proto-Russians.
For now, these archaeological findings are being used more as ostensible support of political rhetoric rather than as evidence, in the technical legal sense, of title. Claims of sovereignty are most clearly based on specific treaties, such as boundary delimitation treaties, or broader treaties that set-forth rules for resolving disputes, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
This does not deny that historical state practice can be a component in resolving a dispute. But there are standards for assessing such historical examples. As the Permanent Court of International Justice wrote in the Eastern Greenland case:
a claim to sovereignty based not upon some particular act or title such as a treaty of cession but merely upon continued display of authority, involves two elements each of which must be shown to exist: the intention and will to act as sovereign, and some actual exercise or display of such authority.
Another circumstance which must be taken into account by any tribunal which has to adjudicate upon a claim to sovereignty over a particular territory, is the extent to which the sovereignty is also claimed by some other Power.
The ICJ quoted this language at paragraph 134 in its Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipadan judgment. In the case of maritime sovereignty claims, the goal would be to turn old shipwrecks into evidence of a continued display of authority, also known as effectivite. Anneliese Guess wrote that Canada’s then-Minister of the Environment said in 2008 that, in regards to the search for shipwrecks in the Northwest Passage:
We certainly think by establishing a long-standing presence in the Arctic that can enhance issues of sovereignty … Look at the strait (the Northwest Passage) not far from where this ship is….We think every bit of weight we can put behind our case for sovereignty is important. Adding history to that equation can only enhance that case.
While historic state practice can be important, the ICJ’s discussion in Pulau Ligitan is a good example of how difficult it can to make such a claim of effectivite. In that case, the ICJ wrote that the facts must “leave no doubt as to their specific reference to the islands in dispute as such.” (para. 136) In Pulau Ligitan, the ICJ was unmoved by many of the examples of naval activities as proof of claims of sovereignty. How much harder still, with archaeological shipwrecks from a century ago, let alone from Roman times.
Modern international law, with its focus on treaty obligations and effective dates (that draw a bright line making some historical facts less important than others) is not likely to accord much weight to shipwrecks such as those mentioned by Campbell. (And probably no weight to some of them.) Nonetheless, politicians spin and deploy these archaeological finds in their wars of words. But in the end, as Campbell reminds us,
…archaeology rarely fits simple narratives. In fact, archaeology often demonstrates our shared human past.