Dhanapala was born in Sri Lanka on 30 December 1938. His family hail from the hill town of Badulla. Dhanapala was educated at Trinity College in Kandy. He gained a reputation as an all rounder as a schoolboy and was awarded the Ryde Gold Medal in 1956. At the age of 17 years Jayantha Dhanapala won a contest with an essay on "The World We Want" and travelled to the US where he met Senator John F. Kennedy and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In the 1990s he chaired a global review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in Geneva. The New York Times observed that Jayantha Dhanapala 'was a diplomat mostly unknown outside the arms-control world until he was elected to preside over this conference.'
He entered the Sri Lankan diplomatic service and served in London, Beijing, Washington, D.C., New Delhi and Geneva. Dhanapala was appointed Ambassador in Geneva (1984-87)- he was also accredited to the UN and was appointed Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the United States of America based in Washington D.C. from 1995-97.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan picked Jayantha Dhanapala for an important posting: Under-Secretary-General in re-establishing the Department of Disarmament. Mr. Dhanapala held this post from 1998-2003.
Dhanapala was a strong candidate for the post of Secretary-General of the United Nations and was in the running for the post ultimately taken by South Korea's Ban Ki-moon. He was committed to reforming the UN. Dhanpala won high praise for being a solid UN Manager and a man who was able to steer through political minefields and reach successful conclusions to complex international problems. Ramesh Thakur writing in the 'Hindu' newspaper in India noted: 'He topped the competitive exams in Sri Lanka and had a brilliant career in the foreign service, culminating as ambassador to Washington. That he has failed to generate excitement in Washington circles may prove to be more of an asset than a liability. He has served ten years in the UN.
Newton Bowles, a distinguished Canadian diplomat who was involved with the UN in many capacities from its start, notes in his memoir The Diplomacy of Hope that Mr. Dhanapala "left a legacy of intellectual rigor and moral commitment" as Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament (1998-2003). He is widely known, respected and admired. He is considerate to subordinates and courteous to colleagues. He is a uniter, not a divider. His candidacy has drawn support from across the political spectrum in a country that is otherwise as fractiously divided as India itself. The opposition parties in Sri Lanka joined hands with the government on the day that his candidacy was announced.
' The UN needs the leadership of a person who has the vision, experience and diplomatic skills to re-engineer the Organization, so that it will be able to meet the challenges ahead, and the person to me- is undoubtedly Jayantha Dhanapala.' (Mangala Samaraweera, Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka)
' Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka is a very strong candidate. He is highly respected as a diplomat by the international community. Dhanapala was an Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations. He has stong managerial skills and has gravitas. Dhanapala is known as a 'people person' who is at ease with himself and at ease with others. Dhanapala is a leader and is known as a man of integrity and character. This candidate is a first class diplomat who made a reputation as a solid UN Manager. The organisation needs someone of Dhanapala's calibre to take the UN forward.' (Ivan Corea)
Jayantha Dhanapala with R. Rydell, Geneva: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, 2005
Jayantha Dhanapala (ed.), Geneva: UNIDIR, 1993, published for UNIDIR by Dartmouth (Aldershot)