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The man making peace with a day

How do you invent a day? How about stopping global violence for 24 hours? Jeremy Gilley is giving both a bash

This Sunday it's International Peace Day, a project set up in the hope that September 21 will become an institutionally recognised day around the world. Founded back in 1999 thanks to Peace One Day and the United Nations, the aim is simple, to create "an annual day of global unity, a day of intercultural cooperation on a scale that humanity has never known". All this week we'll be raising awareness in the hope that this Sunday will be the biggest Peace Day yet. Today, we're looking at creative solutions for conflict resolution, from the Godfather of Israeli graphic design's endless battle for peace to the Syrian artist-journalists looking to document the real-life of their war-ravaged country. 

Jeremy Gilley, a former actor and filmmaker from Southampton, with neither contacts nor political standing, one evening in 1998, had an idea. He wanted to create a date known worldwide as 24 hours of non-violence, as famous as Mothering Sunday and as observed as Valentine’s Day, and he’s spent the best part of two decades trying to do just that. He met the Dalai Lama, the late Nelson Mandela, passed a motion at the UN (who had previously floated a day in September as an international non-violence event). These victories, however temporary, are practical as well as symbolic – the cessation in hostilities in Afghanistan by the Mujahadeen allowed over a million children to be vaccinated. 

The goal is, by 2016, for the day to be self-sustaining and owned by no-one. It’s a nice idea, and it may just come true: 623 million people around the world observed 2013’s 21st September. This year, it will be higher. We’re doing our little bit to do some of that good old awareness-raising, with a takeover of our Instagram by some of the world’s best visual creatives. 

On Sunday, Peace One Day – the NGO behind Jeremy – will be hosting a 100,000-attended Akon concert at the usually war-ravaged Goma airport in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We’ll be streaming it here on Sunday, and you can read an interview with him below. 

What is Peace Day and how did it come about? 

Jeremy Gilley: Peace Day all began 15 years ago in 1998, when I wanted to make a comment about peace, because I was concerned about what was going on in the world. I realised that there was no day of peace, there was no starting point for global unity. There was nothing that bought the world together, except for politics and religion where we united and stood as one no matter our age, sex or colour or whatever. And so I went on a journey, and years of travelling the world, and I’m delighted that it didn’t fail, and every government of the world voted for it. So that dream I had at WOMAD in 1998, late at night … 

This started at WOMAD?

Jeremy Gilley: Yeah it was ’98, it was really late at night and I was lying back thinking “shit, this is such a beautiful festival, with everyone together having a great time, why isn’t the world like this?” That was how I conceived the idea, and in fact the other day my archivist found the piece of paper with the first little scribbles on it. 

You said that every government on earth voted for it? 

Jeremy Gilley: Yeah, well eventually! I managed to convince the Dali Llama and Nelson Mandela. I travelled everywhere. British Airways gave me all of my flights for free. Everyone was giving me everything. The dry cleaner around the corner, he was cleaning my suit, we never had money for that. Eventually I knew that the only way to get a day that was globally recognised was to go to the one room in the world that had a representative from every government of the world, and that’s the General Assembly at the United Nations.  So I knew that I had to get this idea in front of everyone there in that room.

It seems quite an insane ambition to have had in 1998. Were there any people who said “you can never do this”? 

Jeremy Gilley: Yeah, there were loads! That was something interesting for me, I kind of like a no. My personal experience of being in over a hundred countries over the last 16 years, is that no matter who you are, whether a soldier, a policeman, a president or a UN worker or schoolchild or a teacher or an aid worker, all I ever remember was that when I look in someone’s eyes, they had the same dream as I had. The same desire, passion and enthusiasm to see something really good happen – particularly on this day. 

Follow the story as it develops and follow Peace One Day's latest updates here.