Nölke: Knowledge is power, use it

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In what economists have called a “post-factual era,” university graduates have a responsibility to use their education to serve their communities and the greater public sphere, said Sabine Nölke, BA’78, MA’80, LLB’85, the Ambassador of Canada to the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Permanent Representative of Canada to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Nölke spoke to graduates from King’s University College, the Faculty of Information and Media Studies and the Faculty of Social Science at the Thursday, October 27 morning session of Western’s 308th Convocation. Western conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws, honoris causa (LL.D.), upon Nölke in recognition of her distinguished career as a public servant and her dedication to human rights and international law.

While knowledge and expertise may be considered “unflashy virtues,” they are of utmost importance in today’s world, she told graduates.

“This year is the beginning of the post-factual era. Anyone can say anything, to anyone, anywhere, with instant, unfiltered communication,” Nölke said.

Ideological agendas outweigh statistics, facts and analysis. Truth and accountability are being scarified for easy headlines, populist movements and nationalism are on the rise, and irresponsible leaders are playing on people’s basest instincts and fears, she said, with a subtle nod to political tensions around the world and south of the border. Today’s graduates must use their education to combat all this.

Before earning a Master of Laws in Public International Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Nölke earned three degrees from Western, including a BA and MA in English Literature and a Bachelor of Laws. During that time, she competed as a Western Mustang, in fencing – a sport that survived at Western largely because of Nölke’s leadership. When the men’s and women’s fencing teams found themselves without a coach or manager, she demonstrated leadership in taking on the roles for both teams.

Nölke, a dedicated public servant, has worked with the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development since 1992. She has held 10 positions, progressively advancing from Junior Counsel, Economic and Trade Law Division to Director General, Major Programs Bureau.

Her career is marked by a tireless support of international human rights. In 1994, Nölke established the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, which led to an appointment with the Canadian High Commission, in London, England where Nölke was responsible for files which included the Northern Ireland peace process and the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, among others.

Nölke was appointed as the Director of the United Nations, Human Rights and Economic Law Division in 2007. Her responsibilities included oversight of legal issues, including the suppression of international and domestic terrorist financing and disarmament and defence. She was appointed Director General, Major Programs Bureau in 2011 and was responsible for a variety of matters relating to international law and human rights, including counter-terrorism, the Canadian international crime and terrorism policy, nuclear and radiological security, biological non-proliferation, and chemical weapons destruction.

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In her citation Julie McMullin, Western’s Vice-Provost & Associate Vice-President (International), praised Nölke’s dedication to human rights.

“In recognition of her extraordinary service and acumen in international human rights and law, Ms. Nölke was a recipient of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Award for Foreign Policy Excellence And today, Ms. Nölke’s alma mater joins the Minister of Foreign Affairs in recognizing her life of service, leadership and excellence. Ms. Nölke, Western’s community is proud of your accomplishments and of all that you stand for in a world where peace is, so often, elusive,” McMullin said.

Ignorance is celebrated while “expertise and knowledge are decried as elitist,” Nölke added. Social media has turned public discourse into echo chambers where individuals don’t have to be exposed to opinions that differ from their own.

“I say this not to scare you. I’m an optimist and believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The light is education; the light is you. Your education not only gives you a shield against the dystopian post-factual world, but it provides you with a sword with which to combat it. Education is power. You have that power,” she said.