In the wake of the First and Second World Wars, the international community began to discuss in earnest the need for a supranational criminal court to deal with certain crimes of concern to all states. The aggressive war campaigns that had provoked those conflicts had generated enormous losses. Specific atrocities were soon discovered, such as the targeting of Armenians by Turkey and the Jewish Holocaust, prompting the development of novel legal concepts such as genocide and crimes against humanity. In some instances, warring parties had shown a wanton disregard for the laws of war. These political events catalysed Allied states to act.

The first international criminal tribunals were the International Military Tribunals of Nuremberg and Tokyo, created to address crimes of the aggressor states during World War Two. This was followed many years later by the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda in 1993 and 1994 respectively. The first addressed crimes in the context of the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the second addressed the 100 day genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda. Other hybrid international/national institutions have since been developed to deal with international crimes committed in specific contexts. These include the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which looked at crimes committed during the Sierra Leone civil war, and the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, which is adjudicating crimes committed in the late 1970s by the Khmer Rouge.

Throughout the 20th Century, there were also discussions about establishing a permanent international criminal court to address conflicts and atrocities if and when they arose. In 1998, 120 States voted to adopt the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The Court came into operation on 1 July 2002 after 60 states completed the legal processes required to formally join the Court (known as States Parties).

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