The Law of the Titanic

On April 15, 1912, the cruise ship the Titanic sank on its journey from Southampton, United Kingdom to New York City.  A current controversy is ensuing regarding the possibility that there could still be human bodies within the Titanic.  If there are bodies within the Titanic, some historians and persons at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe that the Titanic should be protected from looters, artifact hunters, and intense research.  After all, just out of respect for victims, a grave site should not be the a place for looters.  The ship is not a movie set.

The United States, France, Canada, and England are all likely to have a say on this matter.  In 1986 Congress passed a law known as the RMS Titanic Memorial Act.  However, the law is often criticised as lacking enforcement language. For example, the text of the law states that the purpose is to “To encourage international efforts to designate the R.M.S. Titanic as an international maritime memorial to those who lost their lives aboard her in 1912.”  16 U.S.C.A. § 450rr (West).  However, the law does mandate that the United States Secretary of State enter into negotiations with the United Kingdom, France, and Canada to establish an international agreement to make the Titanic a permanent memorial.

US Senator John Kerry has introduced a stronger bill into Congress which will provide stronger protections for Titanic remains.  However, the problem is that it is unclear which country has jurisdiction over the Titanic as it is in open seas.  Still, many speculate that within the oxygen deprived hull of the Titanic, it is possible that hundreds of bodies are still there, likely to forever be preserved.   Other say it is not possible that there are bodies.  Nevertheless, is clear that one hundred years later, the Titanic still captivates the World.


  1. I think there are two problems with regard to preserving the Titanic. First, an issue arises because it sank in international waters. The sea bed on which it rests belongs to no country, so a law passed in one country may not be applied by a second country. It seems that we really need an international agreement to stop looting and/or intensively researching by people of nations like the U.S. and the U.K. The second issue with regard to the Titanic is its popularity. Even before James Cameron re-introduced us all to the ship, one could find books, movies, and television programs about it. Curious people just can’t help themselves – they want to know more. Some even paid thousands of dollars to take a cruise this year in which they traveled the path of the Titanic and were even served a final dinner aboard the ship on the night the Titanic sank directly over the ship’s wreckage. The sea will take care of destroying most of the wreckage, which may be a good thing for curiosity-seekers. Perhaps 50 years from now we can all let those who were aboard the ship finally rest in peace.

  2. Another post identified the international recognition of the Titanic. Specially, the international community has sought to protect the remains of the Titanic by protecting it by The Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. “This landmark legal instrument is the international community’s response to the destruction of submerged archaeological sites by commercial treasure-hunters.” As I commented previously on the other post, “The Convention applies to all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been under water for at least 100 years.” On April 15 2012, Titanic was protected under this Convention. The Convention aims to preserve the Titanic wreck and seeks State cooperation. Now, if a State destroys even a small part of the Titanic wreck, it will seek international consequences. “The Convention will prohibit the pillaging, sale and dispersion of the wreck and its artifacts.” After arguing this year at the Jessup International Moot Court Competition, I am familiar with the consequences a State can face when it destroys UNESCO protected items. Specifically, this Convention has already stated that “State Parties to the 2001 Convention will accordingly sanction violations of protection measures and seize illicitly recovered artifacts.”

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