Bonita Meyersfeld. Oxford: Hart Publishers, 2010. 368pp. Hardback. $90.00/£45.00. ISBN: 9781841139111.

Reviewed by Denise DeGarmo, Department of Political Science, Southern Illinois University. Email: ddegarm [at]


Domestic violence encompasses a wide array of violent behaviors including but not limited to physical aggression, sexual and/or emotional abuse, intimidation, and stalking. Typically these behaviors are most likely to occur in intimate relationships, including marriage, dating, or cohabitation. However, additional forms of domestic violence have entered the world stage: genocide, mass rape, and torture, to name a few. While these characterizations of domestic violence are generally agreed upon globally, it is important to note that awareness, responsiveness, and documentation of these forms of violent behavior varies from state to state. Despite the fact that domestic violence is a serious and preventable problem, the reality is that most cases of domestic violence go unreported by the victim because of fear of retaliation, sympathy for the offender and/or police silent endorsement of violence. Reporting instances of domestic violence is further complicated by social and cultural norms. Underreporting of domestic violence is a global phenomenon.

If states fail to protect their citizens from domestic violence, what alternatives are available to protect innocent victims? Bonita Meyersfeld, in her book DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AND INTERNATIONAL LAW, provides a comprehensive legal analysis to promote the idea that, when states fail to protect their citizens from and to prosecute perpetrators of domestic violence – Meyersfeld refers to it as “systemic intimate violence” – then states can be held accountable for violating international human rights law because they have become complicit in the act of violence.

The book is divided into four parts, detailing the important aspects of Meyersfeld’s argument: domestic violence as an international human right; human rights and the state’s obligation to protect those rights; the state’s responsibility in terms of systemic intimate violence; and, the benefits of international law for victims of systemic intimate violence. In the first chapter, “Domestic Violence as a Violation of International Human Rights,” Meyersfeld identifies instances of customary international law, international women’s rights law and the actions of various non-governmental, transnational and international organizations to provide a historical backdrop to the development of a norm that identifies certain kinds of domestic violence as an international human rights violation. The foundation of this norm is found specifically within the work of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women where there is a justification for domestic [*270] violence ceasing to exist as an “exclusively domestic affair.”

In Chapter 2, Meyersfeld discusses the relationship between international human rights and the state’s obligation to protect its citizens against “systematic intimate violence.” She provides a conceptual framework, which sets out a clear definition of what constitutes systemic intimate violence, which includes such acts of violence as ethnic cleansing, mass rape, sexual slavery and/or torture. Meyersfeld argues that it is the obligation of the state to protect its citizens from these forms of violence to avoid appearing as if it condones such actions. However, Meyersfeld is quick to point out that states often reject this obligation because of the lack of institutionalized mechanisms that make holding states accountable for these actions difficult if not impossible. She identifies legislative steps, governing practices and police practices necessary to embed notions of “obligation,” while providing for the long-term emotional and physical health and economic well-being of victims.

Meyersfeld examines the theoretical underpinnings of state responsibility in Chapter 3. She specifically turns to the Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, adopted by the International Law Commission in terms of the obligation of states to protect women from systemic intimate violence. Meyersfeld’s analysis in this chapter concludes that, if there are indeed behaviors that citizens of states should have the right to not experience, then the state has an obligation to protect citizens from these behaviors. If a state fails to respond to these egregious acts, then it has violated the rights of individuals to physical security and in turn violated their human rights. In this way, international human rights law can be applied to the domestic sphere.

In the final chapter of the book, “The Benefits of International Law for Victims of Systemic Intimate Violence,” Meyersfeld acknowledges the shortfalls of attempting to apply international human rights law to the domestic sphere. Interference with state sovereignty, lack of policing mechanisms, and the unenforceable nature of international law are at the top of her list. She also points out another complicating factor in the application of international law in this arena: the marginalization of women’s issues globally. Despite these limitations, Meyersfeld notes that the increasing role of non-governmental organizations, non-state actors, international organizations and transnational organizations are elevating the importance of women’s rights, including those rights associated with systemic intimate violence, across the global landscape. Additionally, many states are currently conducting a “jurisprudence examination” of the rights of citizens and obligation of states in an attempt to understand theory and practice. Meyersfeld is optimistic that a positive resolution, in terms of state behavior and systemic intimate violence, will be reached in the future.

This book is a must read. It ventures into uncharted territory by providing a comprehensive analysis of international human rights and the ability of this body of law to compel states to act to address this form of violence. It highlights important links between domestic and international law. International law becomes more relevant to the area of [*271] human rights by providing a framework for the application of international law to the domestic realm. Additionally, Meyersfeld not only provides a content analysis of important pieces of international law and historical precedents, she uses empirical evidence to support what might otherwise be considered normative prescriptions.

This book should be a required text in courses focused on human rights, gender studies and international law. While thickly descriptive, the content is important to comprehend the important role international law plays in the protection of vulnerable sectors of society. The details of important international treaties and events are quite informative. The book is extremely well written with a generous supply of case studies that help illustrate the complexities of understanding and eradicating systemic intimate violence. Providing materials relevant to international and regional instruments and national legislation allows the reader to become more familiar with the links between the domestic and international spheres of human rights law. This is one of the most informative books I have read on international law, and I highly recommend it to those who are interested in this field.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Denise DeGarmo.