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Meet Adv. Keren Shahar

Adv. Keren Shahar serves as a Senior Deputy Legal Adviser in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Every day at her job is significantly different than the other; she deals with a diversified portfolio, from outer space to cyberspace, 5G, arms control, and much more. Her journey to a career in space law began almost by chance when she was asked to assist in representing Israel in space negotiations in 2013. Four years later she was elected as the Second Vice-Chair and rapporteur of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).

Looking at a career in space law or in Space policy? Well, this post is for you! In this interview Keren shares with us about her journey to space, her role models growing up, and what drives her passion for space. She also gives a piece of advice on how to become a space lawyer!

Keren Shahar at the COPUOS annual meeting in Vienna, on stage as Vice-Chair and Repporteur (right) with the Head of UNOOSA Secretariat, the Chair of COPUOS (Mexico) and the Director of UNOOSA

Tell us about your journey to the field of space and to where you are now?

I became an expert in space law almost by chance.

I served for many years as a legal counselor for the strategic affairs division in the MFA (Ministry of Florigen Affairs), giving legal advice on an array of issues which included space, but were mostly limited in that sphere to the 3 UN space treaties Israel is a party to.

Around 2013 an international lawyer was needed to represent Israel in space negotiations. I was requested to assist and that's where my real journey into space began. I met some extremely interesting and welcoming colleagues, who over time became real friends. They opened the doors for me to this amazing field and I got hooked.

Two years later, in 2015, Israel joined the UN COPUOS which its Legal Sub-Committee is THE place for international space lawyers. We were quite active in Vienna as well as in importing space international legal standards back home. Approximately at the same time, we established our excellent and close cooperation with the Israeli Space Agency (ISA), which includes providing legal advice on international space law.

Two years after that, in 2017, the ISA and some foreign colleagues from western countries suggested that Israel submits my candidacy to serve as a vice-chair and rapporteur of the Committee on behalf of the Western European and Others Group (WEOG), and I was privileged to be elected.

I felt it was like in Dr. Seuss' book 'Oh, the places you'll go!' Meaning - when you go out of your comfort zone, you may get to wonderful places. One just needs motivation, curiosity, and the right partners for the journey.

How did your family help to shape your career path?

I think that the most important contribution to my career was my mother's. Since my very early days, she made me feel absolutely sure that I can do anything I want. I knew that she would always have my back. In earlier years it took form in rather simple tasks such as changing a tire or building a closet. Later, during my career, in challenges such as speaking in front of the whole UN assembly. She became my role model for empowering motherhood, which I try to emulate as a mother to my own children. I believe parents have the strongest influence on one's confidence and readiness to try new things and overcome challenges and fears.

I should say that my family, in general, is a very supportive one. They share my successes and are always there for me when I need them. Omer and Lior, my children, are my constant sounding board and my toughest critics. When they were younger I used to tell them bedtime stories about things I dealt with at work, like space, of course, the Ozone layer, climate change, famous cases related to cyber-attacks and peaceful resolution of disputes. They grew to be very curious and involved people, having their own opinions and insights and I can always rely on them and on my partner Tzahi for constructive feedback.

Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be different to your initial expectations?

In my early years, I lived in Spain. Back then Spain was a country with no diplomatic relations with Israel, and I had a constant feeling that Israel was not well enough understood or represented. I grew with a deep feeling that I needed to do something about it :)

So I can say I am quite close to my initial expectations. I did end up in the Foreign Ministry. Currently as the Senior Deputy Legal Adviser of the Ministry. I love my job. One of the reasons it still fascinates me after more than 20 years of service is the diversity of issues I get to deal with. I guess the fact that I enjoy so much what I do after 20 years can fall under the definition of "unexpected"...

What drives your passion for space?

Everything about space is fascinating to me. The thoughts on other planets, the potential that space offers for humanity, technologically as well as in the development of humanity in the wider sense. It has so much potential and so many extremely interesting aspects, some of which are still just in the initial stages of being explored. Something new always happens with regard to space, and it is so diverse, from astronomy through space biology, space policy to international space diplomacy and law.

Besides my own pure interest in the field, I feel space is a great tool for getting some proportions in life in general. I also believe that it can be an effective tool for inspiring people, and especially young children, to develop their own thinking about what can be further done and how can one be part of it.

What are the most significant legal gaps and challenges that the space industry is facing?

From an international legal point of view, space activities in Israel are under-regulated. Despite the industry’s understandable dislike of regulation, the reality is that all space fairing nations already have or are in the process of putting in place appropriate regulation in this field. It is necessary to regulate the private sector’s increasingly growing participation in space activities. In Israel, we are in the early stages of thinking about the scope and content of Israeli space law. We initiated a process on this issue, together with the Israel Space Agency, the Ministry of Science and Technology and other relevant agencies. From my perspective, space law has the potential to do positive things for the industry. It will establish clear procedures as well as rights and obligations. It will protect the industry and will ensure that it is in line with international standards, which it currently has to follow anyway.

The only way, as I see it, for the Israeli space industry to be able to compete with foreign industry is to streamline regulation processes in Israel that concern space activities and exports and to establish a clear, transparent, and predictable process.

Describe a typical day at work for you.

This might be a difficult question to answer, as my days aren’t usually typical. Every day is significantly different. As I mentioned before, I deal with a very diversified portfolio, which mostly concerns international law in the strategic domain. This includes outer space, cyberspace, 5G, arms control, export control, sanctions, foreign investments, etc.

Because of the high volume of work on space law and the need to build expertise, we have established a space law team in the MFA Legal Adviser's office. Together with Shira Giveon, who is an excellent lawyer that works with me in this team, we address questions related to the space industry, like registration of satellites, export control and interpretation of international obligations. We also examine newly adopted international instruments and standards and issue legal positions when needed. We also take part in the work of the ISA team on Space Legislation and a joint Working Group with the UAE on space.

I can say that since the Covid-19 became part of our lives, meetings of the UN and other multilateral fora became virtual and between that and trying to keep strict social distancing, my days are pretty "zoomed" these days.

Adv. Shahar in the UN building in Vienna, where the COPUOS discussions are taking place

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

I’m not sure I can point out a particularly rewarding moment, because I feel gratification every time we succeed in achieving a goal we set for ourselves.

But if you ask me to single out one particular moment, I think I would point to the election to the bureau of COPUOS. It felt like a significant Israeli achievement. Many took part in helping to overcome the political objections raised by some states on account of me being an Israeli. I’m thankful for all the efforts that have been taken by many to assist in this.

In moments of self-doubt or adversity, how do you build yourself back up?

I think that in general, it is very important to keep things in perspective, to understand which things are truly important and not become upset by things that are less significant or by situations that can be fixed. With the years and the experience comes an understanding that things are often not as dramatic as they seem at first sight.

Sometimes, it helps to consult with colleagues and friends. As I mentioned before I have some great colleagues in the space field as well as in the MFA and other agencies. We are there for each other in challenging times, for mutual support and professional consultation. I am a strong believer in teamwork and good collegial relationship.

At the 2020 Ramon Conference with Inbal Kreiss and Dr. Dganit Paykovsky (left) and on stage (right)

Who were your role models when you were growing up?

I really think that one can learn and become a better person, parent, partner or worker by choosing what works for her from the huge menu that life offers us, not necessarily all in one person. I usually find characteristics that I value in people, but I cannot say there was one specific role model for many.

As I mentioned before, my mother was my role model for motherhood. I had a teacher in elementary school that encouraged us to think out of the box, I guess she was a role model for having the courage to try new ideas. I had a legal trainer, Hemda Golan, my first boss in the MFA, from which I learned the importance of accuracy and of standing up for one’s opinions. I got to meet some people from which I learned not to be judgmental - some of them being wrongly judged and some wrongly judging. I should mention also that my best friends are often a source of inspiration for how to cope with life, each with her or his own experience. In that sense, they are also role models.

What would you recommend to someone looking at a career in space law to focus on?

International space law career is different from a career in private space law. In international space law we represent the Government. In order to do that, one should be familiar with all existing international instruments related to space. I believe that understanding foreign relations is not less important in this context than knowing the law, since international law does not exist in a vacuum.

From a practical point of view, I would encourage them to apply for an internship in our Legal Division, in the Office of the Legal Adviser of the MFA.

How do you think the space industry has changed for women over the years? Has it become more inclusive? (worldwide, or Israel in particular)

It has obviously become more inclusive for women and more inclusive for new kinds of the profession, which indirectly increase the participation of women in the game, such as space education, biology, design, architecture, psychology, etc.

However, there is a lot more to do about the scope of participation of women in the space industry and space activities in general. I think we are in the right direction, but we are not very close to the destination, as one can understand from the mere existence of WiSpace and the existing gaps it is intended to fill. In this context, I completely agree with a comment by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space (1983), that said that 'It will be a wonderful day when this isn’t news' referring to gender.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be? Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

From the distance of time, I might have advised myself to appreciate the lessons learned, especially from mistakes. Though it takes a certain maturity to understand that failures are not less important for one's personal and professional development than successes. Having said that, I don't think I would have done anything differently. I certainly wouldn't have swapped my mistakes with others'…

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