Ghada Waly

Director-General/Executive Director


General Assembly High-level Debate on Urban Safety, Security and Good Governance: Making Crime Prevention a Priority for All

  22 April 2021

Mr. President, Excellencies,

It is an honour to join you for this high-level debate.

We live in the century of cities. I myself come from Cairo, one of the largest cities in Africa and the sixth largest in the world, with 21 million people and growing every day. Since 2008, more than half of humanity are urban dwellers, and our numbers will encompass more than two-thirds of the world’s population by 2050.

Cities are the beating heart of our economies and societies, and all of life can be found on their streets – the good with the bad, the problems and the potential for their solution.

Urbanization has been recognized by the UN Economist Network as one of the five megatrends that will shape our world over the next years. Cities are the focus of Sustainable Development Goal 11 and they affect progress towards all of the SDGs.

Getting urban policy right – and making cities safer, more inclusive, and more resilient – can therefore make a decisive contribution to achieving the 2030 Agenda.

The need to better manage urban security and good governance has come to the fore in the global pandemic.

Cities have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, with high rates of infection, vital services breaking down under the strain, and jobs lost as businesses struggle to stay open.

Homicides and property crime fell in many countries when lockdown measures were introduced, but crime rates bounced back to pre-pandemic levels once restrictions were lifted.

Crime and violence may rise further still as the COVID economic crisis deepens existing inequalities and creates new hardship. According to ILO, an unprecedented 114 million jobs were lost around the world in 2020, with younger workers hit harder than older workers, and more women affected than men.

The World Bank estimates that last year, up to 124 million people were pushed into poverty by the virus.

Cities offer extremes of opportunity and exclusion, wealth and abject poverty. Disparities between rural and urban areas can fuel further tensions, driving up urban population growth and putting additional pressure on resources.

Now with social safety nets fraying and people out of school and out of work, vulnerabilities to crime, drugs, and recruitment to violent extremism and terrorism are increasing. Cities will bear the brunt of these negative trends.

Street gangs tend to form in cities, and countries in Europe have registered a recent surge in urban gang violence, accompanied by an increase in the use of firearms, knives, and explosives.

In some cases, gangs are involved with organized crime, including extortion and drug trafficking.

Trafficking in persons for sexual exploitation and for forced labour in industries such as construction is concentrated in urban areas. Migrant smuggling is advertised and organized in urban hubs.

Cities can be particularly affected by trafficking of illicit firearms, which are used to commit other crimes, and aggravate levels of violence, including sexual violence.

Unsafe urban spaces endanger women and girls, who are routinely exposed to sexual harassment and other forms of violence, affecting their ability to participate in school, work, and public life.

Cities have served as epicentres for the global pandemic, and for some of the worst terrorist attacks in recent memory. The consequences of drugs, crime, violence, and corruption have perpetuated cycles of exclusion.

Because cities are most affected by today’s toughest challenges, interventions in cities can also have the greatest positive impact.

To take action, we need to integrate holistic crime prevention and criminal justice responses into broader development policies that address root inequalities.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime assists Member States in these efforts, drawing on our role as guardian of the UN conventions against transnational organized crime and corruption, and our support to implement the international drug control conventions, the global counter-terrorism instruments, and UN standards and norms on crime prevention and criminal justice.

UNODC helps to develop legal and policy frameworks, provides technical assistance, and supports policymakers with research and analysis, including through flagship reports on drugs, human trafficking, and homicide.

We have piloted innovative approaches to strengthen a culture of lawfulness, including through initiatives using education and sport to build youth resilience.

Our Office, with partners including UN Habitat, is also assisting municipal administrations through the Urban Safety Governance Initiative, which provides a framework for tackling the intersection of global threats and local dynamics.

Today’s high-level debate is an opportunity to discuss how we can take forward our collective efforts, to identify and address the safety and security needs of people, and design more effective and innovative prevention policies and programmes for our cities.

I would like to emphasize three priorities for our discussion.

Firstly, the importance of whole-of-government approaches that bring together different levels and sectors.

Local administrations are closest to the people, and promoting responsive, transparent, and accountable local governance is key to harnessing the benefits of urbanization.

Second, we need more reliable and consistent data at urban and local levels, in line with the Secretary-General’s Data Strategy.

Because the risks of crime and violence often converge in specific locations or neighbourhoods, local authorities need community-level assessments, drawing on appropriate disaggregated data, to target interventions with greater accuracy.

Third and finally, we need to support whole-of-society responses, with more inclusive and collaborative management of public spaces, involving city officials, the police, service providers, local civil society, and community members themselves.

Opportunities for education draw people to cities, and informed, engaged citizens can be mobilized as champions for the rule of law and safer urban spaces. 

UNODC research has found that community-oriented policing, which strengthens relations between the police and local citizens, can encourage accountability, and help reduce urban violence.

Combined with evidence-based approaches to problem-solving and crime reduction, community-oriented policing models have the potential to tackle a wide range of harms, crimes, and disorder.

Local administrations are well placed to reach out and benefit from the knowledge and capacities of all members of society – especially youth, women, and marginalized groups, who are too often left without a voice in local politics and policing.

Young people and women are affected by intersecting inequalities and factors that can leave them vulnerable to crime and violence, including domestic violence and gender-based violence. Better protected and empowered, they also represent our most powerful agents for change.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

To build forward towards a sustainable, just future that leaves no one behind, we must take care of our cities by strengthening the rule of law, striking a beneficial balance between urban and rural development, and reducing violence, crime, and victimization.

UNODC stands ready to help Member States to promote safe, inclusive, and resilient cities through better governance, effective criminal justice action, and evidence-based prevention, in line with the 2030 Agenda and the New Urban Agenda.

My sincere appreciation once again to the President of the General Assembly for holding this important dialogue.

Thank you.