The United States withdrew from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1984. An article yesterday incorrectly reported the year. (Published 01/14/2000)

In the final weeks before his retirement, Federico Mayor, then director general of the Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, granted a farewell gift to his staff: 60 promotions and 27 new hires at a cost of $11.8 million, according to UNESCO officials.

Since Mayor's departure on Nov. 15, his successor, Koichiro Matsuura of Japan, has sent at least 16 of the recruits packing and placed a freeze on the eleventh-hour promotions, establishing a task force to review them on a case-by-case basis.

But those measures, unusually harsh by the standards of the notoriously inefficient UNESCO, have prompted outrage in the ranks and even a hunger strike.

Two employees who were set for advancement--a Canadian woman and Bruno de Padirac, a Frenchman who has worked at UNESCO for 23 years--have now gone more than a week without eating.

Although the hunger strikers have camped out in the lobby of UNESCO's Paris headquarters, UNESCO officials declined to identify the Canadian woman, saying she has requested privacy.

The officials did say, however, that de Padirac believes he is being punished for his union activities and for criticizing the organization's leadership in an internal newsletter.

Mayor "had nothing to gain by giving me a promotion since he was ending his term," de Padirac wrote to colleagues in an e-mail message explaining his grievance. He added that his long-overdue promotion turned out to be a "poison chalice" that dealt a "serious blow" to his honor and reputation.

De Padirac, whose recent work has been conducting a UNESCO study on ethics and law in cyberspace, also told a Reuters reporter that he and his Canadian colleague were feeling weak but were committed to starve themselves until Matsuura relents.

Helene Gosselin, a UNESCO spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview that Mayor's beneficence placed a crushing financial burden on the organization at a time when it is trying to streamline and reform its operations.

Gosselin noted that UNESCO offered the new hires two months' wages as severance pay. The promotions, she said, have been put on hold until the task force can review them.

In his inaugural speech Nov. 15, Matsuura emphasized that UNESCO must be accountable to the "world's taxpayers" and vowed to do everything possible to lure the United States and other countries back into the organization.

Both the United States and Britain withdrew from UNESCO in 1995, deriding it as a bloated institution pandering to anti-Western governments.

At the time, de Padirac also held a hunger strike to protest layoffs caused by the loss of American and British financial support, according to Reuters.

Citing reforms during Mayor's tenure, Britain rejoined the organization last year.

Clinton administration officials also have expressed desire to return to UNESCO--if it completes its reforms and Congress agrees to pay the cost of membership.