The United Nations' human rights chief on Monday urged countries such as Canada to attend an upcoming anti-racism conference and downplayed fears it would become a forum for anti-Semitism.

Navanethem Pillay, the UN's high commissioner for human rights, said the conference, to be held in late April in Geneva, has become the target of a lobbying campaign by groups fearing it will degenerate into anti-Semitic accusations.

"The [Geneva] review conference has also been the target of a disparaging media and lobbying campaign on the part of those who fear a repetition of anti-Semitic outbursts," Pillay told a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, according to Reuters.

"This is unwarranted."

She urged all countries to put aside "narrow, parochial interests and reflexive partisanship" and work for an agreement that would help eradicate discrimination.

"Failure to do so may reverberate negatively on the full spectrum of human rights work and mechanisms for years to come," Pillay said.

Pillay spoke three days after Washington indicated it would not attend the conference unless the final document drops all references to Israel, as well as references to to defamation of religion, an issue Washington views as one of free speech.

The U.S. is also pressing European nations to boycott unless the document is revised.

Canada to boycott

The conference will review progress in fighting racism since the first conference, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. That meeting was dominated by clashes over the Middle East and the legacy of slavery, and particularly marred by attacks on Israel and anti-Israel demonstrations at a parallel conference of non-governmental organizations.

Israel and the U.S. walked out of the 2001 conference midway through the eight-day meeting.

Canada announced last year it would boycott the Geneva conference, saying it feared a repeat of the Durban conference.

A statement issued by Maxime Bernier, foreign affairs minister at the time, said the Durban conference had degenerated into "expressions of intolerance and anti-Semitism that undermined the principles of the United Nations."

The conference was a "circus of intolerance," said Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney, who was secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity last year.

Council a 'profound disappointment'

Speaking at a separate anti-racism conference last month in London, Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, a former justice minister, said  the UN Human Rights Council has singled out Israeli actions during the past three years.

"Eighty per cent of its decisions … have been condemnations of Israel while the major human rights violators, such as Sudan or Iran, have enjoyed exculpatory immunity," said Cotler.

"Not one resolution of condemnation against the major human rights violators, 80 per cent against Israel, and we are saying this is, in effect, a singling out of a member state."

Cotler said his memories of the Durban conference are clear.

"Those of us who were there will not forget the festival of hate which became a metaphor for not just the singling out of a people or a state for discriminatory treatment, but really the assault upon the legitimacy of that state and people."

U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, said he hopes the U.S. does not attend the conference.

"The human rights council … has turned out to be a profound disappointment," said Smith.

With files from the Associated Press