Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo in the ICC courtroom during the delivery of his verdict on 21 March 2016 (Photo: Flickr/ICC-CPI)

Beer and Bemba: how ICC big fish links to Heineken

13 April 2016 by Benjamin Duerr, The Hague (The Netherlands)

Jean-Pierre Bemba who was convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in March, is one of the richest men in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Research suggests parts of Bemba's wealth stems from Dutch brewer Heineken.

In March the ICC convicted Bemba of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by his troops in the Central-African Republic [IJT-191, blog].

Bemba was the leader of the MLC militia which later became a political party. A former vice-president, he is one of the most influential politicians in the Congo and one of the country’s richest men. According to media reports, Bemba possesses at least 6 million US dollars (5 million euros) . In the context of the ICC proceedings, his assets were frozen.

Research by a Dutch journalist suggests part of the money could come from Heineken, the Amsterdam-based brewery. In 2015 Olivier van Beemen published “Heineken in Afrika” on the multinational’s activities in Africa.

According to van Beemen, Heineken International has been operating in Congo for decades through the local brewer “Bralima”. When dictator Mobutu Sese Seko came to power in the 1970s, many foreign firms left. Heineken stayed, assuming that Mobutu would leave soon and it's important to keep a foot in the door. The company tolerated to operate according to the regime's conditions and chose Jeannot Bemba to run “Bralima” – a wealthy business man with close ties with Mobutu, van Beemen writes.

Jeannot Bemba is also the father of Jean-Pierre who “inherited the interests and benefits from Heineken’s yields until today”, according to van Beemen. In a recent article in “Vrij Nederland”, van Beemen is referring to Bemba as Heineken’s business partner and shareholder. Today, the Bemba family is said to have a 5% share of “Bralima”. 

The company says its relationship with Bemba “doesn’t qualify as a business contact”. In a previous statement, Heineken generally disagreed with the findings and conclusion in van Beemen’s book. Moreover, the company strongly denies to be jointly responsible for human rights violations in Congo.

Irrespective of Heineken’s responsibility in this particular case, the issue sheds a light on the much bigger question as to how militias, wars and conflicts are financed. International criminal law and the ICC have so far paid relatively little attention to financial flows and the mechanisms that fuel conflicts and indirectly enable the crimes to occur.

There are indications that mining of minerals like tantalum and gold prolong the civil war in Eastern Congo as militias in the past bought weapons with money earned by selling the so-called “conflict minerals”. According to reports by the “Enough Project” and the UN from 2012 and 2013 respectively, the M23 militia, for example, made several millions of dollars by selling gold. The leader of the M23 was Bosco Ntaganda who currently stands trial in The Hague [blog].

Financial flows and individual wealth can be important for a second reason. In case of a conviction, ICC judges can order reparations. In the Bemba case, the issue will come up in the next months after the judges handed down the sentence. The former Congolese vice-president could become the first person at the ICC that has to pay for the harm he caused. The other two convicts, Thomas Lubanga and Germain Katanga, have been declared indigent.

A previous version of this article appeared on the author's blog ICCobserver